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:

 

 

Stages of plant growth

One of the difficulties that new gardeners may face is distinguishing vegetable plants from weeds.  When your seedlings are small, most of them look no different than weeds.  So, how do you know what to pull and what to let grow?

The first set of leaves (primary leaves) on many plants are very similar.  Consider the tomato and pepper seedlings below.  When they first sprouted, they each produced two primary leaves, which were very similar.

leaves.jpg
Tomato (left) and pepper (right)

The primary leaves of both plants are similar shapes and sizes.  In fact, the primary leaves of many seedlings look just like this, only bigger or smaller.  Baby carrots, for example, though much smaller, are notorious for resembling grass.  So the first rule of thumb is:

If in doubt, wait for the secondary leaves to grow before you pull.

Here is a better view of the secondary leaves of each plant.

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Tomato (left) and pepper (right)

Here you can see that the secondary leaves are quite different.

We’re introducing a new series which will present visual histories, if you will, of many common vegetable plants as they grow so that you know what to expect during each stage.  We’ll address a few other hints that you can use to distinguish vegetable plants from weeds, such as smell (useful for herbs, tomatoes, and other plants with strong odours), texture, and more.  For the tomato and pepper plants pictured above, since they were started indoors in potting soil, you shouldn’t need to worry about weeds, but they are possible.  On rare occasions, potting soil will harbour seeds that grow into weeds or even vegetable plants.  I call these bonus plants rogue vegetables.  You may find that your garden produces rogue tomatoes from the previous year’s rotten tomatoes.  🙂

More to come in future posts.

Growing vegetables in hot, dry conditions

Following are some tips on how to encourage a productive garden during a hot, dry summer:

  • Choose varieties that mature quickly and produce smaller fruit.
  • Lay your garden out so that plants that need similar amounts of water are grouped together.  Raised beds retain more water than open beds.
  • Plant in groupings or hexagonal offset patterns rather than rows so that the leaves can provide shade.  Space plants 1.5 to 2 times further apart than usually recommended to provide plants with access to a larger area from which to draw moisture.
  • Sow tall plants, such as corn and tomatoes, on the south side of heat-intolerant plants such as leafy greens, to provide them with shade and lower the temperature.
  • Add large amounts of organic compost to the soil; this helps trap moisture and encourages deep roots.
  • Apply a thick layer of mulch to the soil to prevent moisture loss and keep the soil cooler.  This will also help prevent the growth of weeds, which compete with your plants for water.  You can use natural materials such as grass clippings, straw, dried leaves, pine needles, or shredded bark.
  • Water plants heavily when they are very young, and producing blossoms or fruit.  During other times, they can do with less water. Use drip hoses, which direct water into the soil, rather than spraying the plants from overhead where it is wasted on the leaves.  Water in late evening and early morning.
  • You can place shade cloth over the south sides of eggplant, pepper, and tomato plants.  This will reduce the temperature by 5-15 degrees and may prevent sunscald.  Plants like peppers and eggplants may produce less during a drought, but they will still produce.

Avoid planting these vegetables

Vegetables like peas, brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc.), and leafy greens like cold weather, so they won’t do well in the heat of summer.  You can try planting them in the early spring or late fall, when the heat is less extreme.

Do try these drought-tolerant vegetables

  • Amaranth
  • Artichokes – Jerusalem and globe
  • Arugula
  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Chard
  • Chickpeas (I made the mistake of overwatering these and they started to germinate in the shell!)
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cowpeas
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Melons
  • Mustard greens
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Oregano
  • Peppers
  • Rhubarb
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Savory
  • Squash
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Thyme
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon, especially the sugar baby variety

The great zupumpkin!

In one of my first small gardens, I planted a pumpkin plant and a zucchini plant next to each other.  I didn’t save any of their seeds, but the next year, when I spotted a pumpkin plant coming up from the compost, I let it grow.  It started out looking like a bit like an elongated pumpkin or some sort of squash.  Then it ripened to the above specimen, which was christened the zupumpkin.

Cross-pollination

Cross-pollination occurs when an insect or the wind carries pollen from one variety of plant to another.  The resulting seed, when planted, sprouts a hybrid of its parents.  Since zucchini and pumpkins are both varieties of the same species, they can create the zupumkin (or zumption or pumcchini–your choice) but a cucumber and squash can’t procreate because they’re different species.

Cross-pollination does not affect the current year’s crop, but rather the next year–with one exception: corn.  If the pollen from the tassels of one variety of corn are blown into the silks from another variety, the cob that develops is a hybrid.

Self-pollinating plants

Vegetables like beans, peas, peanuts, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes are self-pollinating. Their seeds will produce plants like the parent, but insects will occasionally cross them, so if you want to be absolutely certain that your seeds will grow true to type, plant each variety at least 10 feet apart.

Insect- and wind-pollinated plants

Vegetables that are pollinated by insects or wind need to be separated by variety, and grown a distance apart (the distance varies with each type of plant).   To ensure that your seeds grow true to type, grow one variety of each type, or separate the different varieties.

Vegetables that willingly cross-breed

The following plants or plant families are prone to cross-pollination.  If you are planting them with the intention of keeping their seeds, keep varieties well separated.

  • Beets and Swiss chard
  • Cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and broccoli
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Honeydew, cantaloupe, and other melons, excluding watermelons
  • Peppers (hot and sweet)
  • Squash (some varieties)
  • Zucchini and pumpkins

Plant of the week: Sweet peppers

Peppers–which are actually fruits–are high in vitamin C and A. They are quite hardy so long as they are not hit by frost, and their plants are quite attractive. You can grow them in the garden, in raised beds, or in large pots on your balcony or deck.

Ideal growing conditions

If you live in a warm climate with a relatively long growing season, you may find that sweet peppers are surprisingly easy to grow. In most regions that have four true seasons, they are usually started indoors in early spring, then moved outside after the last frost. Sweet peppers are not seasonal fruits, though, so if you live in a warm climate you may be able to nurture them year round.
Peppers love sun and humidity. Ensure that they get at least 1-2 inches of water per week, or more if it is very hot. Larger plants may require staking, though they are quite sturdy on their own.

Types

Peppers grow in two main shapes: blocky (bell) peppers, and elongated (lipstick, cubanelle, bullhorn, etc.) peppers. They come in a rainbow of colours, anywhere from white to black. Hot peppers have an extra chemical ingredient in them–capsaicin–which determines how hot they are (the more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper).
The green peppers you purchase in the grocery store or at the farmer’s market may be immature, non-ripe versions of the other color varieties. The non-green varieties are richer in vitamin C, and more expensive simply because they take longer to mature.

Friends

  • Basil
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Rosemary
  • Squash
  • Swiss Chard
  • Tomatoes

Foes

  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower

Fun facts

  • Peppers are native to Mexico, and Central and South America. They were misnamed–and spread–by Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers who were looking for peppercorn plants to produce black pepper.
  • The pulpy white inner cavity of the bell pepper, which is often cut off and thrown away, is a rich source of flavonoids.