Plant of the week: Cherries

Nothing beats cherries fresh from the tree–except maybe the sight of their beautiful blossoms in the spring.  Cherries thrive in warm, dry climates, but they need to go through a cold weather in order to bear fruit.  Sour cherries do better in cooler climates, and so are more commonplace here in eastern Ontario, although some varieties of sweet cherries also do well.  For best results, purchase trees from a reputable local nursery.

Cherries are a good source of vitamins C, A, and B2, as well as fibre, iron, and calcium.

Ideal growing conditions

Plant cherry trees in the late fall or early spring.  They need a lot of water, so select or build a site with soil that retains water, yet drains well, and is rich in nutrients.  Space plants 20-40 feet apart, depending on the variety, and well away from structures or other sources of shade.  The method of planting depends on the type of plants you procured–refer to the instructions provided by the nursery.

Cherry trees take four years to produce fruit (most dwarf varieties produce fruit a year earlier).  If you can, ensure that your cherry trees receive consistent moisture in the weeks leading up to harvest.  If they don’t get enough water, the fruits may shrivel; too much water may cause the fruits to split.  And, most importantly–cover the trees or use bird scaring devices, as birds know exactly when the berries are ready for picking.

In the spring, weed and mulch around the base of the tree.  In the spring or fall, prune dead, diseased, or excess branches.  Ensure that there is enough space between the main branches to encourage the growth of the small branches that will bear fruit.  Generally, the less branches on the tree (within reason), the bigger the fruit and the smaller the yield.

Types

  • Sweet cherries are eaten fresh.  They are not self-fertile, which means you need two varieties in order to produce fruit.
  • Sour cherries are smaller than sweet cherries, but they are self-fertile.  They are not usually eaten raw, but rather sweetened and cooked.

Cherry trees may be full-sized or dwarf, and their berries may ripen to a variety of colours, such as red or yellow.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

When the berries have reached their expected colour, they are ready to be picked.  Pluck the stalks off the branches.  Eat or use them right away, as they spoil quickly.

Cherries are commonly used in baking and a variety of preserves.  They can also be dried or frozen.  If you wish to freeze them, pick them when they are firm.

Friends

Planting garlic, garlic chives, dill, nasturtiums, marigolds, or strawberries near the base of the tree may deter harmful insects.

Fun and frightening facts

  • Cherry seeds, leaves, and branches are poisonous–don’t eat them or let your pets chew on them!
  • It is believed that cherries were discovered by the Romans around 70 BC.
  • Cherries are related to peaches, pears, and almonds.

Plant of the week: Lentils

Lentils are a good source of fiber, iron, and complex carbohydrates, and they have the second highest level of protein per calorie for a vegetable, next to soybeans.  Like their legume cousins, peas and beans, they grow in pods, each of which contains only one or two lentil seeds!

Ideal growing conditions

As lentils are commonly grown in dry areas, they don’t tolerate soggy ground.  They prefer well-drained soil that has a pH of around 7.0, and cooler temperatures.  They will produce less in humid and/or hot conditions.  Add aged compost to the soil before planting.

Lentils tolerate light frost, and can recover from damage caused by early spring frosts.  Direct sow them two weeks before the average last frost date.  Plant the seeds 1/2 to 1 inch deep, about five inches apart (or plant them an inch apart, and then thin them later on).  Rows should be around 2 feet apart.

Keep the plants evenly moist, until the pods have begun to dry, at which point they should not be watered.  As lentils may grow a couple of feet tall, they benefit from the support that a low trellis will provide

Types

Lentils are generally classified by their size–large or small–and their colour–which includes yellow, red, green, brown, and black.  There are many varieties of each.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Although lentils are usually dried, they can be used when green and young, like snap beans.

To harvest them dry, leave the pods on the plants until they’ve turned yellow, then remove the entire plant, and set it on a rack to dry for a couple of weeks.  Once it is completely dry, remove the pods, and lay them out between two tea towels.  Carefully roll a rolling pin over the top towel to break the pods but not damage the seeds, then remove the seeds from the pods.  Place them in an airtight jar and store them in a dry place for up to a year.

Lentils are used for dishes such as dhal and koshari, and included in casseroles, veggie burgers, soups, and salads.  They can be used to make flour, and sprouts can be grown from the seeds.

Friends

  • Cucumbers
  • Potatoes
  • Summer savoury

Foes

  • Garlic
  • Onions

Fun facts

  • Lentils have been found in Egyptian tombs dating from 2400 BC.
  • Although around a quarter of the lentils produced worldwide are grown in India, Canada is the largest export producer.  99% of Canadian lentils are grown in Saskatchewan.

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.