Sweetening tomato sauce naturally

Many recipes for canned tomato sauce call for two ingredients: tomatoes and lemon juice.  The latter is added to “acidify” the tomatoes; insufficient acidity could possibly (though very rarely) cause botulism.  A side-effect of adding lemon juice is that your sauce may be a tad bitter.  You may be tempted to add sugar to it when you use it, to make it taste more like commercial tomato sauces, which contain sugar.

There is much healthier way to add sweetness to your tomato sauce: zucchini!  Zucchini is full of nutrients and though it doesn’t have a lot of flavour, it does have a mild sweetness that really comes out when you add it (grated and frozen) to your sauce.  It breaks down so easily that the fussiest eaters don’t even notice the secret ingredient.  🙂

Homemade tomato sauce base

(for lasagne, chili, pasta dishes, etc.)

Ingredients:

  • Vegetable oil
  • Garlic cloves, chopped
  • Onions, peeled and diced
  • Homemade canned tomato sauce
  • Frozen, grated zucchini
  • Frozen tomatoes

To prepare:

  • In a saucepan, heat the oil, then add the garlic and onions and cook them until they are translucent.
  • Run the frozen tomatoes under warm water, or place them in a bowl of warm water.  Rub the skins, and they’ll easily peel off.
  • Add frozen zucchini.
  • Cook with the lid on until the tomatoes and zucchini have thawed and the sauce is hot, then add the other ingredients needed to complete your dish.

What’s the secret ingredient in your tomato sauce?

 

Rabbits in the garden

On Christmas morning, a pair of rabbits made their first appearance in the backyard.  They were seen feasting on spilled sunflower seeds alongside the birds.  Although rabbit manure is prized amongst gardeners, rabbits in the garden is another story.

How do you know if rabbits have eaten your plants?

If it looks like someone has come into your garden and snipped off the stems using clean, angled cuts, a rabbit was probably the culprit.

What do they eat?

Rabbits like beans, peas, parsley, rosemary, blueberry and other fruit bushes, young pepper plants, beet greens, and Swiss chard–they’re not all about carrots and lettuce!  They’ll also eat flowering plants, and tree bark.  They love roses.

They don’t like mature pepper plants, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, squash, basil, chives, oregano, onions, and sage.

Deterring rabbits

If you have a dog that has free run of your backyard, you may not have a problem with rabbits.  The presence of dogs and cats, as well as their hair and urine, often deter rabbits.  Otherwise, here are a few tips.  You may need to use a few of them.

  • Apply to the perimeter of your garden one of the following: ammonium soap, hot pepper flakes, moth balls, blood meal, or a commercial spray that contains or mimics coyote or fox urine.  These types of deterrents should not be applied directly to the edible parts of plants.  They need to be reapplied after watering or rain.
  • Minimize hiding spots in your yard.  Rabbits need places to hide; if they don’t have them, they won’t feel safe in your space.
  • Plant marigolds or onions around the border of your garden.  The scent may drive them away.
  • Plant a small decoy garden a distance away from your own garden.  Sow their favourite plants for them so that they’ll leave your main garden alone.
  • Install a chicken wire fence around your garden.  It should be a minimum of two feet tall, and up to six inches underground.  Dig a trench and bend the wire into an L-shape so that rabbits cannot dig down and under the fence (here is a visual).
  • Install cages around individual plants to protect them.

Trapping and removing rabbits and other animals rarely works.  When a rabbit is removed from a space in which it was living happily, a vacancy is created into which a second rabbit can move.

 

Stages of plant growth: Cucurbitaceae

In a previous post, we mentioned that we would illustrate the lifecycles of various vegetable plants.  We’ll start with the Cucurbitaceae family.

Here’s a few plants that have sprouted their primary leaves.   They look pretty similar except for the size of their leaves–and the acorn squash’s leaf is a bit more pointed and veinier than the others.

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Cantaloupe, spaghetti squash, and acorn squash

The cucumber seedlings look similar too, which isn’t surprising, since they all emerged from a similar type and shape of seed, which you can see still attached to the leaves on the right.

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Cucumbers

But what about this?  The birds planted this one.

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Sunflower

We’ll update this post once the plants have their secondary leaves, and start to look a little different from each other.

Plant of the week: Rhubarb

Rhubarb is a harbinger of spring; it is one of the first vegetables to appear each year.  It is a good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, and fibre, as well as B-complex vitamins such as folates, riboflavin, and more.  Once you have an established patch, it takes very little work, and you can harvest from it for decades.

Caution: Rhubarb leaves are toxic; it’s fine to handle them but don’t eat them!

Ideal growing conditions

Rhubarb  does not do well in hot climates; it prefers regions that freeze over winter.  It is rarely planted using seeds; rather, you plant a crown (rhizomes and buds) in early spring or late fall.

Rhubarb likes sunny, well drained sites.  To prepare rhubarb sites, dig holes that are a few feet wide and a few feet apart; into each hole, add back most of the soil you dug out, plus compost (about 2/3 soil and 1/3 compost), leaving holes that are about a foot wide and 2 inches deep.  Into these, place the crowns.  Fill the rest of each hole, leaving the buds above the soil.  Water the sites generously until the plants begin to grow, then add mulch.

For the first year or two, don’t pick any rhubarb.  Let the plants become established.

Feed rhubarb mulch and compost.  If the stalks get thin, then the plants need food. Remove the flowers when they appear in the spring to focus the plant’s energy on the production of stalks.

As the plants expand, they will get crowded.  Every 5 or so years, you may need to dig them up and divide these into sections, and plant these–or give them away.  🙂

Apparently rhubarb can be grown–with some difficulty–in 40L or larger containers.

Types

Rhubarb plants are fairly standard except for colouration.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Rhubarb is ripe when its stems are reddish in colour, and 12-18 inches long.  To harvest rhubarb, gently twist the stalk, then pull it up from the ground, and cut off the leaves.  Pick a few stalks at a time from each plant; always leave a few stalks or you risk damaging the plant.

Rhubarb is used to make pies, crisps, cakes, and all sorts of desserts–or you can stew and sweeten it and serve it as is or over ice cream.  Some eat it raw dipped in sugar or salt.

You can preserve it in jam, or dice it and freeze it in bags–then add it to crisps and smoothies over the winter.

Friends & foes

Rhubarb gets along with pretty much everything, which is good, because once you place it in your garden, it is pretty much there for good!

Fun facts

  • The earliest records mentioning rhubarb are from 2700BC China, where it was  used for medicinal purposes.  There are no records of it being consumed until the 19th century.
  • There are several weeds that resemble rhubarb, such as burdock.  Look for the telltale shiny red and green stalks to distinguish rhubarb from weeds.

Food waste: A global problem

What percentage of the food produced for human consumption is discarded?  Would you guess 40%?  That’s a lot of wasted resources– the food itself, and the water, nutrients, land, chemicals, and labour used to produce it.

A staggering 40 per cent of the food produced in the developed world (and 30 per cent worldwide) is never consumed. It’s food that’s discarded from farm to fork, tossed in the field because it’s not the right size or shape, cycled through stores and restaurants, and chucked out of every single family’s home refrigerator. In fact, half of the estimated US$1 trillion worth of food the UN says is discarded each year is the wilted lettuce and expired milk that’s dumped by consumers, with another 20 per cent tossed by grocery stores and restaurants. Dana Gunders, a scientist at the U.S. National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), found $150 billion worth of edible food ends up rotting in American landfills and producing methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more damaging than CO2. Meanwhile, food production uses 80 per cent of all fresh water consumed in the U.S. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S., and a major contributor to global warming. (source)

In Canada, $31B worth of foods ends up in landfills or composters each year.

The average Canadian household waste $31 a week, that translates into $1,600 per year. A tragedy any way you look at it especially given close to 900,000 Canadians and 37% of those being children or youth rely on the assistance of food banks each month. Asked why so much food is wasted, the typical responses included:
1. Food goes bad too quickly (57%).
2. It’s past its expiration date (44%).
3. Cooked too much (19%).
4. Do not finish their meals (11%) (source)

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(source)

An Average Household’s Food Waste in a medium sized Ontario Municipality

(Massow and Martin, n.d.)

bar graph

(source)

Growing solutions

  • Grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs that thrive in your region, and pick them as needed, rather than buying set quantities and discarding the extras or those that perish.  Preserve what you don’t use.  Reduce the market for imported produce that can be grown locally (vote with your wallets!).
  • Share with your friends, family, and neighbours.  Have too many carrots?  Donate some to a food bank, or swap some for a neighbour’s beans.
  • Compost your plants and kitchen scraps; the nutrients will feed future plants!
  • Buy perishables to fulfill recipes rather than to “stock up.”
  • Anyone else have any ideas to share?

Starting seedlings indoors, Part four

Up until now, our seedlings have had a pretty easy life.  They’ve been thriving in a temperature-controlled environment, sheltered from extreme temperatures, rain, and wind.  We want to put them outside in a few weeks, after it looks like the chance of frost has passed.  If we just moved them outside from their little comfort zone, without any preparation, they would likely do very poorly.

Seedlings have to be hardened off before they can be planted in their beds.  This process gradually exposes them to the elements.

Indoor preparation

You can do a little preparation inside to strengthen your seedlings.  On warm and slightly windy days, open some windows to let a cross-breeze flow across the path of your seedlings for an hour or so.  This will expose them to the wind; their stalks will become stronger.  Alternately, you can use a fan; place it some distance away and keep it on low.

Hardening plants

Start 7-10 days before transplant.

  • Start on a mild day.  That is, don’t pick a day that’s too hot or one that’s rainy.  If it’s cold, wait.
  • For ease of transport, consider putting your seedlings on a tray that you can easily carry in and out of the house.
  • For 2-3 days in a row (provided the weather is not inclement), move your plants outside for a few hours.  Place them in a sheltered, shady spot, such as against a building or under a tree.  Do not place them high up on a table or deck where they’ll get the full brunt of the wind and sun.  Each day, increase the amount of time they’re out by an hour or so, so that the first day, they are outside for 1-2 hours, then the next day they are out for 2-3 hours, and so on.  Gradually reduce the amount of water they receive, but don’t let them wilt.
  • For the next 7 days, place them out in the morning sun for a few hours, then move them back into the shade for the bulk of the day.  Gradually increase the amount of time they spend in the sun, so that, again, they spend 1-2 hours in the sun one day, then 2-3 the next, and so on.  Ensure that they don’t get too hot; if they begin to wilt, move them into the shade, and water them.
  • After a week, your plants should be able to tolerate the wind and sun for the day.  So long as the forecast still looks favourable, you can plant them.
  • Plant them on an overcast day so that they don’t get too hot, and water them well.  Apply an organic fertilizer to give them a boost and to minimize transplant shock.  Keep them watered as they adjust to their new life outdoors.

Uh-oh, the forecast changed!

In the event that the forecast changes, and strong winds, heavy rain, or cold temperatures are forecast, your plants may still be okay.  Temporaily cover them with row covers, plastic containers, plastic sheets, or anything that will shield them from the elements without damaging them or eliminating their exposure to the sun.  If you’re using some sort of sheet, just make sure to place something under it to prop it up so that it doesn’t flatten your plants.