The end but not really

I have decided to not renew this site in 2021. I think it will still exist in the WordPress universe somewhere, under a different domain, but I won’t be making new posts. It’s not that I no longer love tomatoes but I have a new exciting horticultural project this summer that is probably going to make it time-prohibitive to blog about tomatoes (even though I think I know what I’m doing a lot better now).

My new project isn’t really a secret anymore but our website isn’t live yet and we’re still working out the logistics – if this site doesn’t disappear into the WordPress ether before it launches, I will share the link!

Tomato Red Face: How to Waste Water

When I started this blog, I figured I was a better-than-average tomato grower. I’d picked up a lot of tricks over the years, I said. I also said that tomatoes are super resilient and hard to ruin – which is kind of true. You can do a lot of things wrong and still get some tomatoes, but they may not be very good tomatoes, or the plants may not produce to their full potential – and it’s pretty clear that this is what happened to me this summer.

As I mentioned I’ve been taking some classes through the U of S’s Prairie Horticulture Certificate program and having multiple “eureka” moments about what I may have screwed up this summer, usually based on common but bad advice. While this is embarrassing for me, someone who thought they were so good at growing tomatoes that I could have a whole blog about it, I owe it to you, my 11 or so readers, to talk about the practices I used that were not based in sound science. These posts focus on four specific topics I didn’t understand very well (photosynthesis, plant hormones, nutrient uptake, root development) and why my well-intentioned but misguided practices may have led to my 2020 gardening woes.

Regarding sources – unless otherwise specified, the majority of general plant science information in these posts is based on what I learned in the University of Saskatchewan Prairie Horticulture Certificate courses HORT 13 Applied Botany and SLSC 14 Soils for Horticulture.

Not surprisingly, I followed yet more bad advice and am quite sure I watered my tomatoes incorrectly this summer. I mentioned in previous posts about how most of my 2020 plants appeared to have poorly developed, shallow roots (when in prior years I have nearly thrown my back out trying to get them out of the ground in the fall). Some of this is likely due to the nutrient issues I subjected them to, but underwatering may have also been part of the problem.

The piece of advice I heard this year, which again is VERY common, was that one should let their tomatoes “dry out” between waterings so the roots have to go searching for deeper water. This explanation was specifically called out in my classes as being incorrect science. It’s not technically bad advice, but the reasoning behind it is not accurate.

Roots are not sentient beings or dowsing rods and thus do not go searching for water if they are in dry soil – they simply stop growing. This is how ALL plants work, not just tomatoes. Attempting to force plants to “search for water” and grow deeper roots will actually encourage shallow roots if improper watering practices are used. It’s important for plants to have well-developed, large root systems so they can take full advantage of all the nutrients and water in the surrounding soil – they can’t do this if they’re concentrated in one small area.

A common example everyone has probably heard that it’s best to water your lawn very deeply and infrequently – this is sound advice. If you moisten the soil deeply, it will take longer to dry out (thus less frequent waterings needed) and the roots will be able to grow into the deeper wet layers of soil. If you only moisten the top layer of soil the roots will only grow there, and if you stop watering they won’t go looking for water on their own – they’ll probably just die.

I know I definitely watered my tomatoes less this year than usual. For some reason I was worried that I had overwatered them in the past (even though they always turned out fine), and was trying to be a little more environmentally friendly. I suppose it was a noble pursuit, but didn’t work out so well for me. On the days I didn’t water, I would stick my finger into the soil and check if it felt damp – if it did, I didn’t water. I should have been checking the moisture where I expected the deeper root zone to be, not the first inch of the surface soil.

Depending on the type of fertilizer one uses, it’s also important to water deeply to leach soluble nutrients (i.e. those that are ready for uptake by the plant roots) down into the rooting zone. For example, if you put slow release fertilizer or manure in the top layer of soil, you need water to dissolve the available mineral nutrients and carry them down to the roots where they can be used.

One doesn’t need to water every day – that part of the advice is sound. But when you do water, water deeply to ensure the roots have moist soil to grow into, because they won’t go searching for it

Another important thing to understand about roots is that if they are well developed, they’ll take up approximately as much room under the soil as the plant does above ground. You’ve probably heard this about tree roots – it’s true! This is why burying a piece of pipe beside a tree trunk to be able to water the roots is not particularly effective. The best part of the roots for absorbing water are the very fine tips where the roots have extended and branched out, farthest away from the plant. Watering near the trunk of a tree, or stem of a large tomato plant, does not direct water to the roots best suited to absorb it.

In my attempt to conserve water this summer, I would direct the shower of my hose right at the base of the stem of my tomato plants. In previous years I’d always soaked the entire bed. Now that I’m woke to the above knowledge, I realize that my “environmentally friendly” watering method meant that I was not directing water to the most appropriate area of the root zone – in fact, I was probably promoting dry pockets at the root tips, greatly inhibiting the root growth and thus the ability of my plants to take up the precious water I was so nobly trying to conserve (as well as whatever random mix of nutrients I managed to cobble together with my haphazard “organic fertilization” scheme). Knowing all this now, it’s no wonder my plants had tiny, compact root systems.

The path to Tomato Hell is surely paved with good intentions. But if you really want to be frugal and sustainable with water use, get a rain barrel and stop trying to hack the hose.

Note – when marking this assignment, my instructor commented that copious use of mulch will solve a lot of water problems. I have never been much of a mulcher, but I’m going to make 2021 the Summer of Mulch.

This concludes the Tomato Red Face series! I also created a Soil for Tomatoes guide for one of my other classes, which I hope to post in pieces in the late winter when it’s time to get seeds started. Thanks for reading!

While I’m not proud of any of this, I’m excited to be able to learn from these mistakes. I’m writing this down for myself a) (of course) to fulfill the requirements of my Applied Botany class but also b) so I can identify and remember the bad practices I used so I don’t repeat them in the future. And I am sharing it with you, even though it is a bit humiliating to do so, in case it is helpful for anyone. If you followed any of my bad advice this summer and similarly screwed up your tomatoes, I hope that the hours of effort that I’ve put into these posts might also serve as a sufficient apology.

Let’s grow some better tomatoes in 2021!

Tomato Red Face: What’s the Deal with Compost?

When I started this blog, I figured I was a better-than-average tomato grower. I’d picked up a lot of tricks over the years, I said. I also said that tomatoes are super resilient and hard to ruin – which is kind of true. You can do a lot of things wrong and still get some tomatoes, but they may not be very good tomatoes, or the plants may not produce to their full potential – and it’s pretty clear that this is what happened to me this summer.

As I mentioned I’ve been taking some classes through the U of S’s Prairie Horticulture Certificate program and having multiple “eureka” moments about what I may have screwed up this summer, usually based on common but bad advice. While this is embarrassing for me, someone who thought they were so good at growing tomatoes that I could have a whole blog about it, I owe it to you, my 11 or so readers, to talk about the practices I used that were not based in sound science. These posts focus on four specific topics I didn’t understand very well (photosynthesis, plant hormones, nutrient uptake, root development) and why my well-intentioned but misguided practices may have led to my 2020 gardening woes.

Regarding sources – unless otherwise specified, the majority of general plant science information in these posts is based on what I learned in the University of Saskatchewan Prairie Horticulture Certificate courses HORT 13 Applied Botany and SLSC 14 Soils for Horticulture.

For this post, I’m going to focus on a plant that I desperately wish I’d taken a photo of but never did – sorry, worst blogger. I had a few too many seedlings to fit in my raised bed so I put one of them (from my “surprise pack” of mystery cultivars) in a pot on my deck, where it would get a lot of heat and a lot of sun. Thinking I could be the ultimate organic frugal gardener, I filled the pot half with reused potting soil, and half with City of Saskatoon compost. Using the common “wisdom” that compost is “the best fertilizer”, I figured this would provide all the nutrients the plant needed for the full season – set it and forget it, and no scary-sounding synthetic chemical fertilizers needed!

The plant grew very spindly, with thin leaves that remained a light green colour for most of the summer, and only bore four cocktail-sized fruit on the same cluster – two matured in late August, and the other two finally ripened indoors during the last week of October(!). (I will note that I did not excessively prune this one, or cover it in red plastic, and these were some of my best-tasting tomatoes.) I identified the plant as the Italian cultivar ‘Principe Borghese’ – the official sundried tomato plant, which should be a high producer and mature in 70 days. When I pulled the plant out of the pot to compost it in late September, the roots were only a couple inches deep.

What the heck happened? It got a ton of sun and plenty of water. But via my soil science class I have posthumously (or post-HUMUS-ly? Get it? I’ll see myself out) diagnosed this plant with nearly every nutrient deficiency in the book – that’s not an exaggeration. It is highly likely this plant was deficient in ALL of the essential nutrients that tomatoes need. But isn’t compost “the best fertilizer”? In short, no. At least not for annual food crops like tomatoes.

We are likely all aware that compost is the product of the decay of organic materials – in the case of City of Saskatoon compost, mainly yard and organic food waste (I mean organic as in plant material, not “certified organic”). While these materials contain some nutrients, they need to break down or “mineralize” in order to release these nutrients in forms that are available for other plants to use. Plant roots soak up nutrients that are in mineral (inorganic) form only – for example, to get a banana to release its precious potassium for tomatoes to use, it needs to be fully decayed! (On that note PROMISE ME that you won’t go Googling banana fertilizers, so much awful and wasteful advice.)

Plant matter mineralizes as soil microbes decay it. Microbes are living things and they also need nutrients for their own energy as they break down these organic materials. I don’t want to overcomplicate this but I think I should mention the concept of the C/N (carbon to nitrogen) ratio of organic materials for improved understanding. Soil microbes need both nitrogen and carbon to decay organic matter. This is a very simplified explanation, but the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in organic materials will essentially tell you how quickly the soil microbes are able to decay the material, and thus release the nutrients for use by the plants. If something has a high C/N ratio, it will take a lot longer to mineralize than material with a low ratio. Manure generally has a lower C/N ratio, and things like wood chips and straw have higher C/N ratios.

(The extremely stupid mnemonic I have come up with to remember which is which is that the CN Tower is really high up in the air, a high C/N ratio takes a long time to break down, it also would take a long time to walk all the way down the CN Tower, this has been a Very Special Insight into how my brain works.)

All composts and manures are NOT created equal (despite the common advice to “throw on some compost or manure”), so you cannot simply say that “compost” or “manure” definitively has a specific C/N ratio. If you and I both have a backyard compost pile, our C/N ratios may be very different, based on what we’re putting into the pile and how decomposed it is. For manure this also varies based on type of animal, what it was eating, and the age of the manure.

Below is a photo of compost one gets from the City – notice it is quite chunky and contains a lot of only partially decomposed wood mulch and tree material. I would bet money that this particular compost has a high C/N ratio (i.e., slow to mineralize). There was absolutely no way that this material was going to supply my tomato plant with all of its required nutrients over a full growing season. It would have been far better to use a synthetic fertilizer like Miracle-Gro, in which the nutrients are immediately available in their inorganic, mineral form for the plant to use.

Once I learned how nutrients become available to plants, I realized what a big mistake I’d made in my soil and fertilization choices. Unfortunately it was the end of the season so there was nothing I could do to remedy it other than chalk it up to a lesson learned, and share it all with you in hopes that you were all smarter than me in the first place.

But wait – if compost isn’t “the best fertilizer” then what is the point of using it? In the future I will think of compost more as a soil amendment that can be used to slowly improve nutrient content (for my perennial plants) and soil structure. For example, I have very high clay soil in my yard, and incorporating compost into my in-ground garden beds has been noticeably helpful for improving the soil texture.

I don’t have the time or space to expand on this too much, but I’ll also mention that the rabbit manure I put in my raised beds, expecting it to provide bountiful nutrients to my tomatoes over the full season, also likely created some additional nutrient issues (both deficiencies and toxicities) which led to the plants being pretty stunted and late to produce. I won’t ramble on, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned about all of this is: “natural” fertilizers like compost or manure are REALLY hard to apply properly if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you can definitely screw up your plants with improper “natural” fertilizer application. There is nothing wrong or environmentally unfriendly with using a synthetic fertilizer if you follow the instructions on the package and don’t overuse it, and it will take a lot of the guess work out of trying to decipher the nutrient content and mineralization timetable of manure or compost.

While I’m not proud of any of this, I’m excited to be able to learn from these mistakes. I’m writing this down for myself a) (of course) to fulfill the requirements of my Applied Botany class but also b) so I can identify and remember the bad practices I used so I don’t repeat them in the future. And I am sharing it with you, even though it is a bit humiliating to do so, in case it is helpful for anyone. If you followed any of my bad advice this summer and similarly screwed up your tomatoes, I hope that the hours of effort that I’ve put into these posts might also serve as a sufficient apology.

Let’s grow some better tomatoes in 2021!

Tomato Red Face: Ripening = Hormones, Not Energy

When I started this blog, I figured I was a better-than-average tomato grower. I’d picked up a lot of tricks over the years, I said. I also said that tomatoes are super resilient and hard to ruin – which is kind of true. You can do a lot of things wrong and still get some tomatoes, but they may not be very good tomatoes, or the plants may not produce to their full potential – and it’s pretty clear that this is what happened to me this summer.

As I mentioned I’ve been taking some classes through the U of S’s Prairie Horticulture Certificate program and having multiple “eureka” moments about what I may have screwed up this summer, usually based on common but bad advice. While this is embarrassing for me, someone who thought they were so good at growing tomatoes that I could have a whole blog about it, I owe it to you, my 11 or so readers, to talk about the practices I used that were not based in sound science. These posts focus on four specific topics I didn’t understand very well (photosynthesis, plant hormones, nutrient uptake, root development) and why my well-intentioned but misguided practices may have led to my 2020 gardening woes.

Regarding sources – unless otherwise specified, the majority of general plant science information in these posts is based on what I learned in the University of Saskatchewan Prairie Horticulture Certificate courses HORT 13 Applied Botany and SLSC 14 Soils for Horticulture.

The thing that I didn’t understand about ripening, but now seems obvious, is that it is a hormonal reaction, not an issue of “energy imbalance” as is common thinking. Apologies for this slightly horrifying comparison, but cutting leaves off a plant to try and get it to ripen its fruit faster is kind of like assuming one could induce human labour by cutting off the expectant mother’s pinkie toe (because now the body can put the energy that the toe was previously using into powering the labour). So, is it possible to influence the plant’s ripening hormones late in the season before our tomatoes freeze?

It’s time to go back to (you guessed it) Grade 7 science, and talk about ethylene – the gas that makes fruit ripen, also known as the ripening hormone. We’ve all heard the tip that to make avocados ripen faster, put them in a paper bag with a banana. This is because bananas give off a lot of ethylene which will trigger ripening in other fruits that are susceptible to it. If you pick two green tomatoes off a plant and put one next to a banana and one farther away, it is likely that the one closest to the banana will turn red quicker. However, this is not the entire story, and doesn’t do us any good for the fruits on the vine, unless you are planning to hang bananas off your tomato cages.

Tomatoes are a type of fruit that will not ripen until their seeds are mature[1]. If you’ve ever had a green tomato that never ripened indoors, this is why – its seeds didn’t “finish,” and thus it never got the internal hormonal trigger to start ripening. However, if an immature green tomato is still attached to a live plant, exposure to ethylene can hasten its maturation[2]. Is there a way to get the plant to start producing ethylene before it’s ready?

Ethylene is a stress hormone, i.e. its production can be induced by stress to the plant. So while it’s possible that my cutting all the leaves off my plants may have induced maturity/ripening via stress, it also had the undesirable effect of cutting off sugar production. After reading and researching for quite a while, my conclusion is that it’s probably not a good idea to do anything that will drastically stress your plants if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing (I’ll classify myself into this category). However, based on the science that I do understand, it sounds like there are a couple of safe things one could try.

Inducing mild drought stress by cutting back on watering is acceptable and may even give you better flavoured (but smaller) fruits, according to Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott[3], a trustworthy voice in horticulture (one of her books was our textbook for Applied Botany, and now if I’m Googling plant questions I append her name to my query). Gently pulling up on the plant to disturb the roots will also stress the plant without harming the fruit. By late season, annual plants do not need a ton of nutrients anymore and thus disturbing the roots won’t be as detrimental as if you did it in the spring. (I know I’d mentioned this tip in August but didn’t understand why it was recommended, and funnily enough it’s the one thing I didn’t try in 2020.)

Note – when she was marking this assignment, my instructor also commented that you can pull out the entire tomato plant and just hang it up and let the tomatoes finish ripening on the plant this way (provided they have reached full size), but cautioned that tomatoes ripened in this manner should not be canned.

The cooling temperatures of late August should also naturally create some stress for the plants, and ideally a home gardener shouldn’t have to manipulate their plants’ hormones, but it’s definitely tempting for us prairie dwellers as we play chicken with the unpredictable fall weather. In an ideal world we all start with quality plants and take good care of them throughout the growing season by giving them optimal amounts of sunlight, water, and nutrients, which should promote on-time maturity as much as possible.

While I’m not proud of any of this, I’m excited to be able to learn from these mistakes. I’m writing this down for myself a) (of course) to fulfill the requirements of my Applied Botany class but also b) so I can identify and remember the bad practices I used so I don’t repeat them in the future. And I am sharing it with you, even though it is a bit humiliating to do so, in case it is helpful for anyone. If you followed any of my bad advice this summer and similarly screwed up your tomatoes, I hope that the hours of effort that I’ve put into these posts might also serve as a sufficient apology.

Let’s grow some better tomatoes in 2021!

References

[1]      J. R. Ecker, “Epigenetic trigger for tomato ripening,” Nat. Biotechnol., vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 119–120, 2013.

[2]      H. J. Klee and J. J. Giovannoni, “Genetics and Control of Tomato Fruit Ripening and Quality Attributes,” Annu. Rev. Genet., vol. 45, pp. 41–59, 2011.

[3]      L. Chalker-Scott, “A salt bath for your tomatoes?,” The Garden Professors, 2011. [Online]. Available: http://gardenprofessors.com/a-salt-bath-for-your-tomatoes/. [Accessed: 01-Nov-2020].

Tomato Red Face: Photosynthesis Fail

When I started this blog, I figured I was a better-than-average tomato grower. I’d picked up a lot of tricks over the years, I said. I also said that tomatoes are super resilient and hard to ruin – which is kind of true. You can do a lot of things wrong and still get some tomatoes, but they may not be very good tomatoes, or the plants may not produce to their full potential – and it’s pretty clear that this is what happened to me this summer.

As I mentioned I’ve been taking some classes through the U of S’s Prairie Horticulture Certificate program and having multiple “eureka” moments about what I may have screwed up this summer, usually based on common but bad advice. While this is embarrassing for me, someone who thought they were so good at growing tomatoes that I could have a whole blog about it, I owe it to you, my 11 or so readers, to talk about the practices I used that were not based in sound science. These posts focus on four specific topics I didn’t understand very well (photosynthesis, plant hormones, nutrient uptake, root development) and why my well-intentioned but misguided practices may have led to my 2020 gardening woes.

Regarding sources – unless otherwise specified, the majority of general plant science information in these posts is based on what I learned in the University of Saskatchewan Prairie Horticulture Certificate courses HORT 13 Applied Botany and SLSC 14 Soils for Horticulture.

I may be most embarrassed about this one, but simple Google searches on the subject turn up so much conflicting and downright incorrect advice that I suppose I need not be. I mentioned having issues with tomato flavour this year, and while I can’t diagnose the cause for certain, I can talk about how some of the practices I employed near the end of the season probably didn’t help.

We all remember our photosynthesis unit from middle school science, right? Plants! Green! Sunlight! We can easily recall the flash card vocabulary, but what about the actual science? Having not taken a biology class since high school, it’s safe to say I didn’t understand how to apply this incredibly important concept to the plants I was growing.

Photosynthesis is simply a chemical reaction performed by plants, which takes carbon dioxide and water and turns them into sugar (technically glucose), water, and oxygen. The sugar is food the plant needs to grow; it also gets stored in the plant’s fruit (making the fruit delicious ensures animals will eat it and spread the seeds). This process CANNOT take place without light, which plants absorb through their green parts. This does not mean the plant is absorbing green light – again, go back to Grade 7 science, and recall that if you’re seeing a colour, that object is actually reflecting said colour back at you. Plants absorb red and blue light, the wavelengths that power photosynthesis, through their green leaves. Plants cannot make sugar without proper light.

If you have been reading this blog all summer, you are probably beginning to recognize where I inadvertently limited my tomatoes’ ability to perform photosynthesis.

If photosynthesis is what makes sugar, then photosynthesis is critical for ensuring our tomatoes have good flavour. In order to try and “speed up” my immature August tomatoes, I did two very dumb things: I covered them up in red plastic, and cut off a bunch of the green parts (i.e. leaves).

The only photo I have of this plastic is from the beginning of the season – you may recall I noticed the plants struggling and removed it, but assumed that late season plants didn’t need light so it was safe to use in August.

Gimmicky products abound for how to “hack” sunlight for better plant growth, but the biggest “duh” moment I had in my Applied Botany class was realizing that if a plant needs direct sun, the best way to ensure it gets direct sun is… give it direct sun. There is simply no need to try and to filter specific wavelengths or bend the light underneath the leaves or whatever the salesperson wants to tell you. The best light for tomatoes, which are a plant that requires copious amounts of direct sun, is definitely not light that has been filtered through red plastic (which would actually be reflecting some of the red wavelengths AWAY from the plant, as well as creating shade).

So not only did I block my plants’ access to direct sunlight when they needed to be making delicious sugar… I also further limited their ability to absorb the light that did get through the plastic by cutting off some of the largest leaves. Because “they weren’t doing anything” and “the plant needed to put its energy into growing fruit.” Insert facepalm emoji.

Just like people, plants need food for energy! They can’t make their food (sugar) without photosynthesis! They can’t do photosynthesis without absorbing light on their green parts. Let the stupidity of my actions, and my audacity for having an actual blog about tomatoes when I thought these were good ideas, wash over you.

But wait – sugar is plant food? Then what do we bother fertilizing for, if photosynthesis does all the work to feed the plant? Fertilizer is still necessary, because it provides essential nutrients for the plant – but nutrients are not food. To continue the “just like people” analogy, you and I cannot survive on vitamins and minerals alone – we need calories. Plants do make all their own food, but they don’t conjure their own vitamins and minerals in the process. While people can efficiently take in nutrients via our food, plants don’t work this way, which is why they need to take up nutrients through their roots.

Hopefully we’re now pretty clear on what NOT to do to try and make tomatoes grow or ripen faster. The question remains – is there anything you can do if your tomatoes are super late? Stay tuned!

While I’m not proud of any of this, I’m excited to be able to learn from these mistakes. I’m writing this down for myself a) (of course) to fulfill the requirements of my Applied Botany class but also b) so I can identify and remember the bad practices I used so I don’t repeat them in the future. And I am sharing it with you, even though it is a bit humiliating to do so, in case it is helpful for anyone. If you followed any of my bad advice this summer and similarly screwed up your tomatoes, I hope that the hours of effort that I’ve put into these posts might also serve as a sufficient apology.

Let’s grow some better tomatoes in 2021!

Making Better Pasta

As I work on my “what I did wrong” posts in the background (I’m using them for my horticulture class term paper, so won’t post them until they’re graded to make sure I don’t post anything incorrect), fresh tomato season is more or less over. I still have some ripening on my counter so I can eat them for a few more weeks before I have to do grocery store or greenhouse grown tomatoes for the winter.

This post is kind of unrelated to gardening, but it’s still tomato focused, and it’s about a couple of ingredients that more or less changed my life recently, so I wanted to share. If you like pasta with tomato-based sauce, you will either already know about this or you’re about to improve your pasta game… a LOT.

I was extremely lucky to get to go to Italy twice on my grad student conference schedule. When I brought pasta home, I noticed that it had a fairly rough texture – much different from the smooth noodles I was used to buying. I read soon after that this is why one should always buy higher-quality Italian pasta, because they use bronze extruders that create a rough texture which helps the noodles to absorb more sauce. There’s also something else going on with legitimate Italian pasta, a je ne sais quoi (or I guess I should say non so cosa) that just makes the whole dish taste better – it might be a bit more dense than its North American made counterpart, which would explain the longer cooking time.

Notice the rough texture?

The excellent news here too is that higher quality Italian pasta is not particularly expensive. 500g of La Molisana pasta sells for under $2.50 at Superstore in Saskatoon!

If you have good pasta, you also don’t want to waste it on bad sauce. Once you run out of your own frozen/canned/etc. sauce, might I suggest trying a bottle of passata instead of canned tomatoes. Passata is simply strained tomatoes, another Italian ingredient that a can of crushed tomatoes or Prego sauce doesn’t hold a candle to. Again, a bottle is only about $2. It’s thick and ultra-flavourful and the first time we used a bottle to make spaghetti sauce we could not stop raving. It tastes so good that you could probably get by without adding any other seasonings.

The final life changing trick I learned is how to put this all together. For years, I would make sauce in one pot, spaghetti in another, transfer both pots to the kitchen table, putting sauce on top of naked spaghetti on my plate and attempting to mix the two. Friends, this is a fool’s errand.

Instead, cook the pasta to about 1 minute away from done. Turn off the heat. Take a mug full of pasta water out of the pasta pot. Drain the pasta. Add the mug of water AND pasta to the pot of sauce. Simmer the pasta in the sauce until it’s done cooking – this begins to absorb the sauce into the pasta and transforms the dish into something very cohesive. (It also took me a long time to realize that this is what recipes meant when they said to add pasta water to sauce so the sauce would stick to the pasta better.)

I’m getting hungry as I write this post – it’s probably easy to guess what my supper plans are…

SIMPLE Ways to Preserve Tomatoes

While I may not be the best tomato grower out there (though next summer – watch out, I’m coming for you), one thing I am definitely good at is cooking with tomatoes. Today I am going to talk about two EXTREMELY SIMPLE methods for preserving an excess harvest.

These are legitimately simple methods – I despise when internet recipes claim to be extremely simple and quick and end up… not. I recently saw a recipe that listed a 15 minute prep time, but one of the ingredients was pomegranate arils – I don’t know about you folks, but taking apart a pomegranate alone is a 15 minute task for me.

What I’m saying is I don’t have time to can tomatoes all day. You don’t have time to can tomatoes all day. But if you have 15 minutes and a bunch of tomatoes that you don’t know what to do with, read on.

Roasted Tomatoes

This is my favourite thing to do with an excess of cherry tomatoes, though it will work well with any low-moisture (i.e. paste) tomatoes.

Rinse the tomatoes in a colander. Put them on a sheet pan. Toss with a couple splashes of oil and a few shakes of salt. Roast in the oven at 300 until they have dehydrated to the texture you like. This will take between 1-3 hours depending on the size and moisture content of the tomatoes you are using – set a timer and give them a check every half hour or so.

If you want to store them longer term, cover them in oil and refrigerate. If you plan to use them in the near term, they will keep in the fridge without extra oil for about 2 weeks. They also will freeze fairly well.

You can also add aromatics like garlic cloves or herbs to the roasting pan! A clove of roasted garlic stored with the finished tomatoes infuses them with a lot of flavour.

Tomato Puree

You can make this with any size or type of tomato!

Wash the tomatoes. If they have woody cores, remove them. Put them in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Freeze until you’d like to use it.

Note that this does not make tomato sauce, which is a cooked product – this will be fairly watery unless you drain or squeeze the flesh before pureeing. Another extra step you could add is blanching the tomatoes so you can remove the skins, or strain the puree after blending. I don’t do either of these – I have a high powered blender which pulverizes the skin and seeds and I am far too lazy to do more than necessary here. When you want to use the puree it will need some cooking down to remove the excess water and concentrate the flavour.

These have been my go-to preserving methods, along with homemade tomato paste, for several years, and they never fail to produce delicious results.

Goodbye Summer

Tomorrow’s October, tonight’s a freeze… I took my garden out yesterday. The hardier herbs and carrots are still hanging on for a while but anything requiring a cover is out. It was a bit sad, but looked to be the last warm-ish day for a while, so I finally bit the bullet.

One of my mystery tomato plants from the greenhouse produced a LOT, and my sister grew a bunch of tomatoes that she doesn’t really want, so I am now flush with tomatoes and even though my own garden didn’t do as well as expected, I’ll be able to make all the usual fall favourites – tomato paste, tomato soup, and the piece de resistance, tomato pie. We’ve enjoyed several caprese and Greek salads over the last couple weeks as well.

Something that became painfully clear to me this summer, perhaps as a result of documenting my tomato growing, is that maybe I don’t know what I’m doing as much as I thought I did. Good advice is notoriously hard to come by on the internet, and gardening is not an immune topic. As I’ve said before what works for one person may not work for the next – but there’s likely a scientific reason for it. For example soil characteristics and hours of sunlight vary by geographic location, and very specific advice that could be tied to one of those factors may not yield the same results around the world. I decided that I’m sick of not knowing what it all means! As a contractor in my day job my work hours are definitely sporadic enough that I can handle another project, so I enrolled in the Prairie Horticulture Certificate at the University of Saskatchewan.

After just a couple weeks, I’ve already learned a TON. I’ve recognized several of my mistakes, and have some sneaking suspicions about other practices. As I learn and confirm the right and wrong way to grow plants (at its core: make sure you can get a lot of photosynthesis to happen!) I hope to make some posts on here about it, perhaps with my tail between my legs when necessary. For example, if you cut all the leaves off your plants in mid August to try and get them to “put energy into ripening the fruit” because I told you to – I’m really sorry. It’s common but incorrect advice. Also, compost is not fertilizer. Sorry again.

Alas. Onward and upward! We shall garden again next summer.

Second Wind

I’m guessing with the recent cold stretch in SK that most of you have pulled off your green tomatoes to let them ripen indoors. This would have been the most practical thing to do. However, because some of my tomatoes were so green that they likely would not have ripened off the vine, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I left my plants covered up for nearly a week (uncovering for a few hours here and there when the sun felt warm). Now, as it looks like we’re heading into an above seasonal 20ish stretch for a couple weeks, I’m hoping some of these plants will get their second wind.

Right now, I’ve got tomatoes ripening quickly enough that I’ve got a full bowl of half-ripe fruit in the house, and others on the plants. Let me be clear – this is usually where I’m at about late July, NOT mid-September. Whether it was the weather, or something I did to screw it up, my tomatoes are six weeks later than usual this year.

The majority of tomatoes I’ve eaten so far were seedlings I bought from the greenhouse – as I mentioned, a couple of the plants turned out to be cultivars I did not think I was buying, so I’ve mostly eaten Sunsugar, some sort of San Marzano or paste tomato, Celebrity, and an unknown mid-sized/cocktail slicer. I have found them all to be fairly lacking in flavour, which is frustrating because I bought them with a specific expectation of their taste. I wondered if it was something I screwed up, until I finally got to eat my first ripe seed-started heirloom today.

It was a seed I started from a “surprise pack” so I’m not sure what cultivar it actually is. My best guess would be Cherokee Purple (link is to the shop I got the surprise pack from), which is a plant I wanted to grow this year but lost the seeds. The fruits are pretty small for CP, but that doesn’t mean much since this year was so weird – there are a variety of things that could have stunted their growth/production.

Anyway! The first tomato that ripened looked like this:

…which is so horrid and ugly and cracked that I had to cut off almost half of the fruit to get to the actual edible parts (this is one reason why heirloom tomatoes are really not marketable). BUT the flavour was absolutely outstanding. I only got 5 small bites, but it was ridiculously flavourful. What a relief to find out that the poor flavour of my greenhouse tomatoes was not my fault, but probably due to some poor quality seeds.

So, I have finally reached the point where I remember why I torture myself in the early fall to extend the season for these long-maturity heirloom cultivars. There are some tomatoes whose flavour just cannot be matched by anything else.

My ananas noire (the best tasting tomato IMO) plants have been especially slow to start ripening, but I think this next week or so of around 20C temperatures should give them their final push into ripening.

They’re Alive!

This morning was the moment of truth – did my multiple layers of covers protect my plants through our record breaking Labour Day freeze?

I was mainly breathing sighs of relief as I pulled off the blankets and tarps. Everything was still alive! However upon closer inspection there was definitely some damage sustained, especially on any leaves near the outside of the garden. It looks like the cucumbers and melons did some nice growing in the dark, and a few green tomatoes got a bit of colour.

Definitely some major damage to the cucumber leaves along the edge of the raised bed, but a lot more cucumbers than I remember being there on Saturday!

Wilty leaves on this tomato plant, but fruits intact and ripening.

So, what works for a too-early summer freeze?

I have no doubt that if I hadn’t covered everything in multiple layers, these plants would not have made it. For plants with foliage and fruits well above soil level, like tomatoes, more than two layers are likely necessary. My in-ground garden with melons and strawberries definitely fared best, as it had the warmest soil to begin with, while my raised beds were obviously cooler.

The plants sustained enough damage during one unseasonably cold night that I doubt they could have managed a second night of subzero, nor will they likely be able to again. I’m hoping I bought a bit more ripening time (and maybe an extra jar of pickles) by doing this, but next time the forecast shows another multi-hour freeze it’s probably time to end the gardening season.

My gamble worked out this time, but my fingers are crossed for normal temperatures in the coming weeks!