Gardening is Gambling

In Saskatchewan, growing anything other than root vegetables past mid-August is generally a gamble. This year my fellow Saskies know that last night, Labour Day 2020, most of the province dipped WELL below 0. In Saskatoon, we sustained -6 for a couple hours. This is NOT normal at all – extremely early for such cold temperatures. And of course, these few extra cold nights will be followed by a couple warm weeks of good growing/ripening weather. The choice a gardener must make when faced with the first freeze of the year is to throw in the towel… or throw ON the towel. Pick your green tomatoes and hope they ripen, or cover them up and take the chance that they make it through to the warm temperatures on Wednesday.

In my first year gardening in the ground, I pulled everything out at the first freeze but was annoyed that it was followed by nearly a month of above 20 temperatures. Thus, I now choose to gamble.

I don’t think I’ve ever had to gamble at -6 though. -2, -3 is more normal for a first freeze. When it hits -6, it’s usually early October and time to dig everything out. But I just couldn’t surrender to nature on Labour Day!

Saturday was high 20’s and HOT, so I made the decision to cover everything that evening while it was still summery warm. I am not sure if there’s any weight to this theory but I was hoping that I could “catch” some of the warmth and that things would stay warmer if I didn’t wait until it was 5 degrees out to cover.

My tomatoes are covered in their red plastic houses, plus sheets, plus a large heavy tarp. My cucumbers are covered in a heavy blanket plus a tarp. My melons are covered in a light duvet plus some heavy plastic.

Obligatory joke about not being able to see the tomatoes at all

As tonight is still supposed to go down to +1, I am leaving the covers on until tomorrow. They will be in the dark from Saturday night to Wednesday morning, which should be fine for the tomatoes that just need to ripen, but I’m unsure if this will be too much darkness for my vine crops that are still growing (assuming they didn’t freeze).

I want to look! I want to know if they survived, but I need to wait at least another 24 hours. And really I’ve been waiting all summer – what’s one more day?

How to Save Tomato Seeds

It seems it may have been too windy for frost last night, and I’m crossing my fingers that it didn’t quite get all the way down to 2, because the wind blew a lot of the blankets off my plants in the night. They look okay, so hoping all is well and that the nightly lows stay above 5 for the next couple weeks.

I know a lot of my friends, like me, have really late tomatoes this year, but by now everyone has been able to eat at least a few ripe ones, so it’s probably time to start saving!

If you Google “how to save tomato seeds” you will find a lot of different methods and some very strong opinions. I’m sure they all work just fine. I’m going to tell you how I do it, which has always worked for me, and the seeds have remained viable for several years.

First though, make sure you are only saving seeds from open pollinated/heirloom tomato varieties. If you are saving seeds from hybrid plants (if you don’t know if what you planted is a hybrid, but you still have the plant tag from the greenhouse or the seed package, a quick Google of the cultivar name should let you know), you will likely not get the same plant next year. If you have no idea what variety you have but the plant came from a greenhouse, there’s about a 75% chance it’s a hybrid so I would not chance the disappointment.

My method for saving seeds may seem a bit blasphemous to the folks who ferment entire tomatoes, but I promise it works! I’ve always had great germination results from my saved seeds. It is simple and not smelly or messy like other methods.

All you need to do is put the seeds (and any gel that’s stuck to them) in a cup of water and let them sit for about 5 days. You can swish them around once a day or so. Once you can tell that the gel sacs around the seeds have separated from the seeds (this may occur earlier than 5 days), dump the water, rinse the seeds, and dry them on a paper plate for at least 72 hours. Then store them in the freezer until next year!

Don’t leave them in in the water longer than about a week or the seeds may start to germinate. If the sac has still not come off after this time, you should be able to easily separate it with your fingers at this point.

Some mold may start to grow on the surface of the water, but this is normal and nothing to worry about. Just make sure to wash it off the seeds before you dry them!

I recommend saving double the amount of seeds that you think you’ll need – they take up next to no space, and if stored properly will remain viable for decades. If you grew an heirloom variety that you liked, make sure to hang onto a few extra seeds and don’t plant them all in one go in case a germination disaster hits and you end up losing all your seeds! I learned this lesson the hard way in 2020.

Time to Cover

Tonight in Saskatoon the forecast is for 2 overnight with a risk of frost. The weather today is rather unpleasant (60km winds and a high of 15, no patches of blue in sight), I just had to throw out one of my ripe Celebrities because it had a pretty disgusting case of blossom end rot, and to top it off our bikes got stolen from our garage last night. All in all, August is not ending on a high note.

Usually after the first cold, frosty night, the weather warms up a bit for a while, so I’m hoping that will be the case this week. However, frost is frost, and it will damage your plants, so if they’re still in the ground you’ll need to cover them tonight if you don’t want to pull them out today.

Anything with above-ground fruit should be covered. If the temperature isn’t going below zero, row cover or plastic is fine (as long as it keeps the frost off the fruit) but I usually use heavier bedspreads which I tell myself hold in a bit more heat. 2 is not a great temperature for tomatoes to hit, if you can help it.

My tomato plants are currently covered in red plastic but I’ll be putting another layer of blankets overtop, and I’ll be doing the same with my cucumbers, lettuce, melons, and strawberries. Things like carrots, beets, and hardy leafy greens like chard or kale are generally okay with a touch of frost and don’t need to be covered (and it may even improve the flavour of bitter greens like kale).

If you don’t have any covering media, a great place to get cheap bedding is Value Village (it seems to be the one thing at VV that isn’t overpriced these days). Secondhand sheets are a lot cheaper than horticultural row cover, and I recommend buying ones that are heavy enough that you won’t need to stake down.

It was inevitable we’d get to this point one of these days. August feels unfortunately early, but this is what we get for gardening in Saskatchewan.

Tomato Cousin Jam

In my sunberry post, I mentioned that these prolific yet relatively unknown tomato cousins taste kind of like a salty red wine.

In my ground cherry post, I mentioned that these prolific and slightly more well-known tomato cousins taste kind of like an unknown tropical fruit.

In today’s post, we find out what happens when you mix these two cousins together to make jam!

I have a LOT of sunberries this year – more than ever before. The ground cherries are doing quite well also. I have eaten a bunch raw (as has my friend’s two year old), but they were still piling up. I decided to make a small jar of jam with the berries I’d picked so far – it was about 1.5 cups and made a perfect amount of jam.

And dare I say, mixing ground cherries in with sunberries somehow even makes already incredible jam even better? It absolutely tastes like tropical fruit, but with the winey complexity of the sunberries in there too. I highly recommend this if you’re growing both (or maybe plan to next year).

Here’s what I did; you can adjust the fruit ratio however works for you.

Tomato Cousin Jam

Yield – 1 half pint jar

1.5 cups mixed sunberries and ground cherries (I had a 2:1 SB:GC ratio)
1 cup white sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice

Bring all ingredients to a boil and cook until the jam reaches 220 degrees or passes the plate test. Pour into a sterilized jar and either store in the fridge, or can it with a water bath.

Note that this is not a jam that would go well with peanut butter (in my opinion), but is better enjoyed alone on toast or with a cheese board.

One other note – the texture of all of the tomato cousin jam I’ve made so far has been fairly sticky – it’s a little more syrupy/caramely than a typical “berry” jam. If this happens to you, you didn’t do anything wrong, but if you want a looser consistency maybe consider taking it off the heat around 216-218 instead of waiting for 220.

BT Sandwich

While we all know my tomatoes are not ripening as fast as I’d like, the recent pruning and plastic covering seems to be helping. I finally got to eat my first ripe Celebrity the other day, with a second on the way soon!

What honour did I bestow on this precious beauty? The conditions were perfect for one of my favourite summer treats, a bacon and tomato sandwich.

I like a BLT as much as the next gal, but when I’m using my own fresh tomatoes, I prefer the sandwich to be as uncluttered as possible. This is why I ditch the lettuce and the mayo and stick with four simple ingredients – tomato, bacon, butter, and bread (plus salt and pepper).

Salt and butter when one is already using bacon? Just trust me on this one.

To make this sandwich, slice the tomato to your desired thickness and generously salt and pepper it. This will not only enhance its flavour, but help drain out some excess moisture. Let it sit while you get everything else ready.

Cook the bacon. Ideally use thick cut bacon, and pour some water into the pan at the beginning to help render the fat and make it cook more evenly. Cook it crisp so it will break apart cleanly as you bite into the sandwich.

Toast two slices of bread, and butter them both. Yes, butter them. Tomatoes are healthy so you don’t need to worry about it.

Finally, put everything together and enjoy the literal fruits of your labour!

I know this is a terrible picture, but it tasted amazing

Other Stuff I Grew

I’m guessing that most people reading this blog who have gardens, like me planted more than tomatoes this year. I’ve lamented more than enough about how I’ve had a fairly bad year for tomatoes starting from germination issues to mislabeled greenhouse seedlings to extremely late maturity, but I’ve had other plants that did really well (and a good many that went the way of the tomato). I thought it would be fun (and for my own garden journaling records) to list some of the other edible things I grew this year and how they did. I’ll try to keep each crop to a couple sentences but this post is still likely to be long.

Cucumbers – Direct seeded (new to me variety) Saladmore Bush, an AAS winner, close to May Long, timing which has never let me down. Only one of 10 seeds germinated, so I went back to National Pickling, which worked well for me last year (they all germinated quickly). All cucumber plants sat around doing almost nothing until late July, which was really weird but likely due to cold weather. They are producing now, and I’m hoping for warmer fall weather to get an okay pickle harvest during September. Not impressed with Saladmore Bush, will stick with National Pickling in the future.

Peas – Pretty sure I grew Homesteader. Did one row and then a second two weeks later for slightly more continual harvest. Did a bad job of staking them which contributed to lower harvest. Planted a third row in late July, not sure if it will do anything. Poor harvest overall, probably mainly my own fault.

Carrots – Planted Deep Purple, paid good attention to my seed spacing this year. Did two rows, they grew really well! I have had issues with carrots in the past so I’m happy with them this year. And bonus alien specimen. Would grow this variety again; it’s pretty and tastes great.

Pak Choi – forget it. Bolted immediately. Won’t grow again.

Arugula – For once, the arugula lasted more than a couple weeks! I was harvesting until early August. Likely due to the cooler than usual summer!

Lettuce – I grew a salad mix, and like with carrots tried to space it out better than usual. Like arugula, this lasted forever – I still have lettuce that I can pick and eat and is in relatively good shape. Likely due to cooler summer weather as it was actually planted in one of the sunniest spots in the yard.

Sunberries – These came up like usual, I had to pull tons of plants out, but I’m definitely going to get a good jam harvest this year. They also seem to give the cucumbers something to grab on to.

Cucamelons – WHY do I keep trying with these? They sound so fun and cute and apparently make incredible pickles, but they don’t do well for me. Still no blossoms. I might try the leftover seeds in my front boulevard garden next summer for one last chance. Also, I should probably start them indoors like the package says to…

Herbs – Oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, dill, mint, it all did well. Herbs are nearly impossible to screw up. However, I was disappointed that I couldn’t find a lot of the varieties I wanted to grow.

Hot Peppers – I did one pot of jalapenos and one pot of serranos and they are pretty bad. One of the pepper plants in the four pack of jalepenos was definitely not a jalepeno (why does this seem to be so common for 2020?). Each plant produced about 2 usable peppers. As per usual I am bad at growing hot peppers, this is not surprising, but they’re even worse than normal.

Padron Peppers – Mixed results, seem to be based on what kind of pot I planted them in. Very very slow to get going but my best plant is finally producing. I’m babying it now and moving it indoors at night to try and keep it warm to extend the growing season. Would try and grow again but plant directly in the garden.

Strawberries – Planted in the boulevard garden, had all sorts of trouble getting them going. Seemed like animals were biting off the blossoms. I have some sort of random mix of cultivars in there right now and only about 4/10 plants actually produced a modest harvest. Might not be the best spot for them. I may put them in the kohlrabi bed next year and see if that’s a better spot.

Kohlrabi – I decided to try Gigante Kohlrabi, which is a Czechoslovakian heirloom kohlrabi that can get very big but apparently doesn’t get woody. It’s a long grower, 130 days, and I don’t think we had great weather for them this year. I think I put them in a spot that is too hot. I also waited too long to put on row cover and it got eaten by cabbage caterpillars. So now every day I brush off the eggs by hand and then blast the leaves with water. It’s growing, but slowly, and I’m hoping they’ll get to softball size by October. Starting them indoors early was pointless.

Melons – On a recommendation from Lyndon Penner’s USask melons class, I picked up some Kazakh melon seeds from Prairie Garden Seeds (amazing selection of heirloom seeds, out of Humboldt of all places!). They were VERY slow to bloom but finally there are a few little melons. Hoping they are very cold tolerant and that I might get a melon or two by October. If not, I would try them again next year. It seems they might need to be hand pollinated as I’ve only seen a bee on them once, so I’ve been taking a paintbrush out every morning for the last week or so.

Garlic – My trusty garlic never lets me down. The heads were smaller this year than in the past I think, but that’s probably my fault for letting too much dill grow in the bed with it. Still, I’ve got 48 heads now curing which should last most of the winter.

Ground Cherries – Producing like crazy and ripening faster than I care to eat them. My friend’s two year old loves them and will be eating many more this season.

Raspberries – Ripened REALLY late and are still ripening. The week of intense wind at peak ripening blew them around a lot, ripped some leaves, and bruised at least half the fruit. Not a great year but not much I could do. Planted more canes this year along the side of the garage to hopefully increase yields in the future.

Haskaps – Got a ton of berries, even after generously sharing the first harvest with the local cedar waxwings. Made jam and have some frozen for baking or more jam.

Apples – Our Gemini tree produced exactly one apple this year which we are looking forward to enjoying when it ripens.

2020’s garden winners are: haskaps, ground cherries, herbs, sunberries, arugula, lettuce and carrots. An honourable mention goes to garlic, and the jury is still out on cucumbers, Kazakh melons, and padron peppers.

I also have to say that I wasn’t super impressed with the quality of seedlings I got from greenhouses this year. There were multiple plants with label mix-ups, which is really frustrating, and they just didn’t grow as well as the ones I started from seed. Since Helga of Helga’s Herbs (at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market) retired, the variety of herbs I was able to find was also severely lacking. I am thinking next year I just need to start everything from seed and be done with nurseries, at least for my edible crops.

The Brick Trick

aka, something else to try because it’s so late and your tomatoes are still green

A while ago I saw a tip on Twitter that I wish I’d done earlier, but better late than never. It said to put a large-ish rock near each of your tomato plants to absorb heat all day, which would help the plant stay warmer overnight. This is extremely brilliant and simple, and I forgot about it until my sister said that she was pretty sure her peppers were doing so well because they were in pots on her concrete patio.

I had a few decorative stone bricks left over from our front walkway, which today I put in the sunniest spots in my tomato bed. The heat wave appears to be over, so fingers crossed that the brick trick will provide the necessary extra heat my plants need to do their last bit of growing and start speed ripening soon!

End of Summer Hail Mary

Yesterday I pulled out three more tomato plants that had not set any fruit – both Pineapple plants (I guess I know why I didn’t remember how this seed worked out in the past) and the Big Zak, which was still a very little Zak. Everything else at least has… something, even if it’s just two or three fruits.

The roots on all three plants I pulled were very small and poorly developed based on how they usually look when I pull out the plants in September. I’m interested to find out if this will be unique to these three, or if all my plants will have bad roots this year. I tried to troubleshoot and discovered that this could be due to over OR under watering. Seeing as I’ve been unsure if my plants have been over or under watered this summer, this information does not help my diagnostics much.

Rather than wallow in these disappointments, it was time this morning to do some damage control and salvage what’s left. This week is going to be possibly the hottest of the entire summer, which likely won’t be good for ripening but may be a final growth push for some of the undersized fruits, of which every plant still has several.

I brought in the Big Guns (Miracle Gro Tomato), fertilized all the plants, and busted out the clippers.

If your plants are in a similar boat, End-of-Summer Hail Mary pruning involves removing all of the buds and too-tiny fruits from your plants. There’s no time for them to develop properly, so they need to be sacrificed for the greater good. Don’t let the plant waste energy trying to make new babies! I generally also prune off any new growth (“suckers” – i.e. the tiny new branches forming in the armpit of the larger branches, for lack of better phrasing) and larger branches that don’t have fruit on them. This should force the plant to put its energy into developing the remaining fruits.

Even though this week is going to be insanely hot, the late August nights are quite cool, so I’m also going to greenhouse up my plants with red plastic covers to hopefully keep some heat in so they can grow a bit overnight.

If your green tomatoes are full sized and you simply want to hasten ripening, the above described pruning still applies. Another trick I heard last year is to tug on the plant a bit to disturb the roots – apparently this root disturbance should trigger the plant to stop growing and start ripening. I don’t know if it actually works, but doesn’t hurt to try.

Why don’t you just pick the green tomatoes off and let them ripen indoors? you ask. Because indoor ripened tomatoes are gross and only good for cooking with and I WILL fight anyone who does not agree with this statement. Outdoor ripening on live plants or bust!

My Best

I pulled out the tiny stick tomato plant the other night. I don’t know what went wrong with it, but it remained a tiny stick, flowered a couple times, though never set fruit.

Another disappointment related to this was that I thought the stick was a Juliet plant, but the other seedling that came from the same four-pack is definitely not Juliet. It’s some sort of large paste tomato, I’m guessing Mamma Mia but I will have no way to be sure…

…because the seedling I planted that was supposed to be Mamma Mia is, you guessed it, definitely not Mamma Mia, but instead some sort of cocktail tomato. It’s the best producer in the garden so I can’t really complain except I have no idea what it is, so even if it’s a really good plant I won’t know what to buy again.

I think I’m also going to have to pull out Big Zak, who has still not set any fruit, so if he’s supposed to grow to like a 5 lb tomato, time is not on his side.

Except for Mystery Cocktail, my plants are about half (seriously) the size I’d expect them to be by mid-August. By now I’m usually pruning off all the branches that have gone out of control and are spilling out onto the grass or into the adjacent cages, but this year I’ve got nothing to prune.

I could continue to describe the rest of my tomato woes, as there are a lot this summer. Many things might have gone wrong and I can’t really be sure what the real kicker was, as there are just too many variables. Maybe it was the cold weather, maybe my neighbour’s tree is too big now and casting too much shade, maybe I didn’t water or fertilize them enough, maybe the greenhouse sold me duds and I started my other plants too late, maybe I neglected them a bit because I was distracted with everything else going on. Most likely it’s a combination of all of these.

I started this blog because I love tomatoes – I love eating them, I love growing them, I love cooking with them, I love learning about them. Unfortunately I’ve done the worst job with them, this “blog year”, out of any year I’ve been growing them. I guess it’s like everything else this summer – we can try and do the same things that bring us summer joy and normalcy, but there’s this cloud of uncertainty and strangeness hovering over it all, a reminder that it’s not a normal summer, we’re in a pandemic and… it SUCKS. I shouldn’t be too surprised that the tomatoes followed the same pattern as everything else.

It’s okay though. I think we all did our best this summer, and our best perhaps looked a little different than it may have in other years. So if your best was that you got seeds to germinate but forgot to water them in July because you had to go back to work and figure out pandemic daycare, that’s okay. If your best was simply finding some joy in learning about gardening by watching YouTube videos, or cheering on your friends who planted stuff, perfect.

No matter what happens, I’ll surely get a few trusty Celebrities starting to ripen in the next few weeks, and because of all this they’ll taste even better than I expect them to. The one or two Pineapples or Ananas Noires that manage to ripen will be the most treasured of any year. And then I’ll come back and try my best again next summer.

Easy Tomato Cousins to Grow: Tomatillos

If you enjoy growing tomatoes, but want to grow something even easier and more relentless, tomatoes have a few cousins you might enjoy growing! I’m growing their two more “fruity” cousins this year (sunberries and ground cherries) and have tried a tomatillo in the past but made a very stupid mistake with it. This is the final of three posts about these cousins, featuring tomatillos.

I maybe have no business writing this because I have not grown tomatillos successfully, but this was due to a very simple mistake. The plant itself grew nicely, but none of the flowers set fruit, so I never tried it again. Several years later I finally found out that tomatillos need to pollinate each other, so a single plant won’t produce on its own.

If you’ve ever had salsa verde (verde is Spanish for green), it is likely made with tomatillos, not green tomatoes. To my knowledge one does not eat tomatillos raw. When I have purchased them in the past at the market, I have made salsa verde with cooked tomatillos, which is delicious.

I don’t love processing tomatillos however – while ground cherries usually come cleanly out of their husk, tomatillos have a lot of sticky substance under their husk which is somewhat annoying. But I don’t mind this to get a small batch of fresh salsa verde once or twice a summer!

I don’t know if I will try growing tomatillos again because I don’t have the space or the need for two plants, and I have heard that they are HEAVY producers. I don’t need multiple pounds of tomatillos, but I might try it again sometime for the novelty and can a bunch of salsa to share. I’m guessing they grow well in pots like their other cousins.

I hope you have enjoyed this series! If you are interested in growing any of these cousins next year, tomatillos seem to be fairly common at local greenhouses. As mentioned sunberries and ground cherries are harder to come by, but seeds can be purchased from Early’s in Saskatoon, or gifted from friends who grow them.