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.

Pickling cucumbers

Most pickle recipes call for a large number of small pickling cucumbers, which contain less water that slicing (English) cucumbers.  If you have an excess of slicing cucumbers, though, they’re suitable for pickle recipes in which the cucumbers are sliced rather than left whole.  I’ve prepared the following recipe using a mixture of pickling cucumbers that grew too big, and Straight Eight or Marketmore cumbers, and they’re always a hit.

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Dill sandwich slices

  • 3 tbsp. pickling spice, placed in a piece of cheesecloth and tied off to make a bag
  • 4 cups cider vinegar
  • 4 cups water
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup coarse salt
  • 5 large bay leaves, or 10 small
  • 5 cloves garlic, or 10 small
  • 2 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 5 heads (flowers) fresh dill
  • 13 cups cucumbers

Trim the ends off the cucumbers, as well as the peel on two opposite sides.  Cut them into 1/4 inch thick slices, so that each slice has peel on its thin, long sides.  If the cucumbers are quite long, you may need to cut them again lengthwise so they’ll fit in your jars (and on a sandwich).  Place in bowl of cold water to keep them crisp.

Prepare 5 canning jars and lids according to the instructions for your specific canning system.

In a large saucepan, mix vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and spice bag.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar.  Boil gently for 15 minutes.

In the bottom of each hot jar, place 1 large or 2 small bay leaves, 1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, and 1 head of dill.  Pack cucumber slices in jars to within 1/2 inch of top.  Ladle hot pickle juice into jars.  Use a table knife or similar implement to remove air bubbles; add more liquid if needed to reach 1/2 inch of top.  Clean rim, centre lid on jar, and screw band on to fingertip tight.

Place the jars in the canner and process, covered, in boiling water for 15 minutes, then uncover the pot and let the jars sit in the water for another 5 minutes.  Remove jars to cool on the countertop.  After you have verified that they’ve sealed (listen for the pop!), store them in a cool, dark location.  Let the pickles sit for a few weeks before you try the, so the flavour has time to develop.

Harvesting and storing garlic

When the tops of your garlic plants begin to die back, it’s time to think about harvest!  Stop watering your plants so that they will get a chance to dry out (Mother Nature may make this difficult).  When about half of the leaves have died, your garlic should be ready.  If you want to be certain before you dig it all up, you can carefully feel around in the ground to get a sense of how developed the bulbs are, or dig a couple up to inspect them and ensure that the cloves have filled out.

Use a spade or fork–inserted well away from the garlic–the loosen the soil so that you can remove plants without damaging them.  Gently brush off the dirt that clings to the plants, but don’t wash them or remove their leaves or roots.  Hang the plants in bunches of 6 or so in a dark, dry location with good air circulation.  Leave it there for at least a month, until the leaves, roots, and husks have dried.  At that point you can cut off the roots and leaves (leave the latter on if you plan to braid them).

Store garlic in a dark, cool area.  I keep mine in a basket, but you can use a mesh bag, or continue to hang it.

Softneck types of garlic can be stored for 6-8 months; hardneck varieties may begin to sprout within half of the time.  Check your stores every now and then to ensure that your garlic is not sprouting or drying out.  Remember to save some garlic for planting in the fall.

Cool beans

Beans are one of the easiest vegetables to grow.  Here are a few varieties I’ve had success with.

Pole snap beans

If you are limited for space, or want to maximize your garden’s output, you can’t go wrong with pole beans.

Blue lake stringless beans and Rattlesnake pole beans are seriously prolific.  I planted perhaps four plants of each this year, and have been getting a couple of handfuls of beans from them every night for a couple of weeks.  Both are tender and delicious; the rattlesnake beans can be eaten young or left to mature into shelling beans.

 

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Rattlesnake pole beans
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Orca beans (black and white), Rattlesnake beans (brown and white spotted), Kidney beans

 

Bush snap beans

Bush beans are great if you don’t want to deal with vines climbing everywhere.

If you like colourful beans, Royal burgundy beans (purple), Kinghorn wax beans (yellow), or Red swan beans (pink) are all good producers, though they can’t beat the pole bean varieties mentioned above.

Dried / shell beans

Here, for me, is where the fun starts–lots of colourful little beans that you can add to soups, chilis, veggie burgers–you name it.

  • Black turtle beans are adorable, tiny black beans.  You can see them in the photo at the top of the page.  Each plant produces many beans; each bean contains around 6-10 seeds.
  • Orca beans look like the name suggests they would–like little orcas.
  • Ojo de Tigre beans are the orangish beans in the top photo with the pink whorls on them.  They are perfect for refried beans and the like.
  • Rattlesnake beans, as mentioned above, also produce delicious brown and white spotted beans.
  • I planted kidney beans from a bag of dried beans that I bought at the grocery store.  A few generations later, they’re still going strong (though that may not be the case with all store-bought seeds).

Anyone else have some favourite bean varieties to share?

Plant of the week: Cantaloupe

Cantaloupes, also known as muskmelons, are high in fibre, and a great source of Vitamins A and C, and folic acid.  They contain, on average, only 100 calories–and they are a refreshing summer treat.

Ideal growing conditions

Cantaloupes need warm soil, and they thrive in hot and humid weather.  Here in eastern Canada, that means starting them indoors and then transplanting them a couple of weeks after the last frost date, once the soil is warm.

Cantaloupes are heavy feeders.  One way to provide them with the nutrients they need is to dig a hole about a foot wide and a foot deep, then refill the hole with a mixture of the original soil and well-rotted manure and/or compost, forming a mound that will stay warmer than the surrounding soil.  Mounds should be 3-4 feet apart.  If you are limited for space, you can grow cantaloupes on trellises.

Cantaloupe plants need to be well watered, but if they receive too much water, especially as the fruit ripens, it may taste bland.  If the plants get too cold they might not bear fruit.  You can use floating row covers to help retain warmth, but ensure that you remove them while they are flowering (at least for a few hours a day) to allow for pollination.  Each plant has male and female flowers.  Fruits develop on the sideshoots where the female flowers grow.  If you are lucky enough to have more than three fruits on a plant, pinch the excess small ones off so that the plant will concentrate on developing the first three large fruits.

Types

The different types of cantaloupes have slight variances in colour, size, texture, and taste.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

When a cantaloupe is ripe, its rind changes from grayish green to yellowish beige, and its netting pattern becomes more pronounced.  The most obvious signs, however, is the crack that appears around the base of the stem, and the musky smell of the fruit.  You should be able to easily cut it from the vine.

You can store an uncut, ripe cantaloupe for about five days.  Cut cantaloupe can be frozen or dried.

Friends

  • Corn
  • Nasturtiums
  • Radishes
  • Squash
  • Sunflowers

Foes

  • None

Fun facts

  • Cantaloupe gets its name from the town of Cantalupo, Italy.
  • Some varieties of cantaloupes are grown for their seeds, which are used to make oil.

Cover crops

Cover crops, also known as green manures, are crops that are grown and then intentionally tilled into the earth.  Though they’re not harvested, they benefit gardens in multiple ways:

  • They improve the soil by drawing nutrients up to the surface, where they become accessible to later crops through the compost that results after they’re tilled.  Mowing the plants and letting the cuttings dry for a couple of days before tilling them under lengthens the time it takes for the vegetation to rot, therefore making their nutrients available longer.
  • They protect the soil when vegetable crops aren’t being grown–they limit the spread of weeds, and prevent the soil from drying out in the hot sun or eroding away nutrients in the rain.
  • Their deep roots aerate the heavy soil and make it easier for future crops to also grow deep roots and access the nutrients they need.
  • Legume crops convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a soluble form that future crops can absorb.
  • They increase the amount of microorganisms in the soil.  These help decompose the organic material and make nutrients available to future plants.

Fall cover crops are generally sown about a month before the last frost date.  Here are a few options for cover crops to plant that do well in the cool fall weather that is on its way:

  • Alfalfa
  • Barley
  • Fava, broad, or pinto beans
  • Clover
  • Cowpeas
  • Fenugreek
  • Oats
  • Rapeseed
  • Soybeans
  • Vetches
  • Winter rye
  • Winter wheat

Ensure that you turn your cover crops under when they flower, but before they go to seed, so that the crops will not reseed themselves in the spring.

Freezing beans

One of the delights of having a garden is being able to enjoy the fruits of your labour in the winter.  String or snap beans are easy to preserve; all you need to do is blanch them  and then into the freezer they go.

Blanching is the process of partially cooking vegetables, then putting them in  ice-water to stop the cooking process.  Not only does blanching help vegetables retain their vibrant colours, but it helps preserve nutrients and flavour, more of which would be destroyed when frozen “as is”.

 

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Before blanching

 

 

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After blanching: the pink beans lost their pink and the variegated beans lost their stripes!

 

To blanch snap beans

  1. Wash the beans, and remove the ends (I like to leave the tails on).
  2. Cut or snap them to the desired size.
  3. Fill a bowl with cold water, and add a tray of ice cubes to it.
  4. Boil a pot of water.  Some people add salt to the water; I do not.
  5. Add the beans directly to the water, or place them in a colander over the boiling water and steam them.
  6. If you placed the beans directly into the water, let them cook for about 2 minutes.  If you steamed them, let them cook for about 5 minutes.  You’ll know they’re done when the colour of the beans has brightened, and they are tender, but not cooked through.
  7. Drain the hot water, and place the beans in the ice water until they are cold.
  8. Drain the cold water, and set the beans on a paper or cloth towel to dry.
  9. Place the beans in a ziploc bag, and throw them into the freezer.

Frozen beans should be good for at least a year.