Easy Tomato Cousins to Grow: Ground Cherries

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 post is part 2 of 3 cousins – ground cherries!

You’ve definitely seen ground cherries before, but maybe call them something different. Cape gooseberries and husk cherries are other common names. They are often sold in grocery stores as “golden berries” and sometimes advertised as a superfood. My main interaction with them before growing was as a dessert garnish at slightly upscale restaurants, with the husk pulled back.

About 5 years ago my favourite local vegetable producer, Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, grew and sold ground cherries and I bought some to garnish a butternut squash pie I made for family Thanksgiving. I remember my dad describing the taste as “like a strawberry” – while I didn’t agree, I’ve seen the taste similarly described online, or also compared to a pineapple. They do taste a bit citrusy to me, but I don’t think they have a similar taste to any other fruit I know.

I’ve wanted to grow them for a while myself but never found a plant to buy, and didn’t have luck with germinating some seeds I had saved. This year Kaleidoscope was selling seedlings so I bought one, and it’s growing like crazy and producing a lot of fruit.

While a ground cherry seedling should be planted deep like a tomato to send out more roots, it seems to grow more like a canopy than up into a bush like a tomato. My plant is mostly spreading out horizontally; if it was not in a pot it would be spreading on the ground, hence the name I suppose!

The fruits drop to the ground when they are close to ripe. I have eaten them right away after they fall, and they taste quite sweet already, but apparently they can use another week or so of ripening after they fall. After that they can supposedly be stored in their husks for quite a long time in a cool spot.

Like sunberries, these tomato cousins are apparently relentless reseeders. I’ll have to test this out by burying a couple in a pot over the winter, and if all goes well I’ll likely have several seedlings to share next summer!

The taste of the fruits is fairly pleasing to most people, but having to unwrap each one from its husk may not be ideal if you’re trying to make jam or something with them. They seem to grow quite well in a pot, and I plan to keep growing them if I can in future summers.

Some greenhouses sell these as seedlings, or you can get seeds from Early’s/a friend who grows them.

Easy Tomato Cousins to Grow: Sunberries

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. I’m breaking this post into three parts I’ll post over the next few days – today we’re talking about sunberries.

Sunberries are probably the cousin you have never heard of or seen before. They have a few common names, another of which is wonderberries. I bought my first sunberry plant from (now retired) Helga’s Herbs at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market about 5 years ago.

The berries are pea-sized and dark purple, almost black, when ripe. They have tiny white seeds which are similar to those of ground cherries. They taste terrible raw – almost like sweet and salty wine. Disappointed in them that first year, I let the berries fall into the garden without eating many of them, and about 500 plants popped up again the next year. I pulled them out, but they came back yet again the following summer.

An online search of what to possibly do with all these horrible tasting berries led me to discover that sunberries make wonderful jam! It doesn’t taste like any other jam or preserve I’ve had before, and I covet it as a special treat to put on really good bread.

While a sunberry plant can produce quite a lot of berries, they are still very small, and I try not to keep too many plants because they compete with the rest of my garden. I thus get a yield that makes me about one jar of jam per year. Once they start to ripen I can pick a handful or two a day which I freeze until I have enough to make jam.

Should you grow sunberries? If you have the space for them, don’t mind that they will relentlessly reseed year after year, and can find a way to use them. They are also very easy to pull out if they’ve seeded themselves, so they aren’t the worst nuisance. I embrace them in my garden!

The berries are currently still green, but they’ll ripen until the frost destroys the plants

To grow sunberries, find a friend with a sunberry problem and get a few ripe berries from them (normally Early’s sells the seeds, but they appear to be sold out right now). Throw them in a patch of dirt and forget about them until next summer.

Next Year’s Project: Wicking Beds!

My cedar raised beds are about 5 years old and they are starting to show their age. We’ve talked about replacing them, and are excited to have found a more sustainable solution!

I have been volunteering with the Saskatoon Horticultural Society’s Virtual Passport Garden Tour this summer, which started on Monday and runs until August 7. The featured gardens are all so amazing, I definitely encourage you to start following the tour if you are not already!

The June 28 video features an incredible fruit and vegetable garden in Saskatoon, which mainly relies on wicking beds for growing vegetables. Before attending the filming I had not heard of this method, but it is a highly efficient and effective type of raised bed/container gardening that directs water right to the roots of the plants, which helps them grow bigger faster and conserves water.

Below is the video from the tour, and under that I’ve also linked a video that shows how these particular beds were built! (You can also follow the tour on Facebook if that’s more your jam.)

We did it!

In a stunning turn of events, I picked a ripe tomato off a plant in my own garden today! I can’t believe I got to do this in July after such a cold June. As expected, it was a Sunsugar cherry tomato, which is always the earliest. Hoping this upcoming heat wave a) is real and b) gives the other plants a big boost!

A Check-in and a Mystery

Things are growing pretty fast now, though the weather has still not been ideal. I sound like a broken record when I say that the forecast at least appears favourable for the next while (though has it ever come true?), but the forecast does appear favourable for the next while.

My plants, even the very smallest, at least now all have buds. A few have fruit, and I hope to be eating a cherry tomato or two in a few weeks – this feels a bit insane to be saying in the middle of July, but this is Saskatchewan. Let’s all cross our fingers for a warm September!

A weird mystery is happening to one of my plants. I have two Juliettes that came out of the same four-pack from a greenhouse. I transplanted them (deeply) at the same time and they are pretty much right next to each other in the bed, and at the time there wasn’t a huge size difference between them. They have always received approximately the same amount of sunlight, water, and nutrients, yet one is a tiny stick and the other is full sized:

Tiny stick
Full sized

I can’t figure out what could be causing such a discrepancy. I notice that the bottom leaves on the tiny stick are a bit yellow, but I had an issue with yellow leaves on a lot of my plants for a while but I couldn’t troubleshoot the reason and eventually all the leaves just turned green again. Perhaps tiny stick will catch up in size in the next while, or maybe it’s just a runt.

I hope your plants are doing better than mine! I recently learned about wicking beds and how well tomatoes grow in them, and I want to do a post soon about them. I might even try to build a tiny one in a bucket as an experiment, though realistically it’s probably a project for next year.

Green (with) Tomato Envy

So the other day, I took a peek over the fence at some community garden planters at the retirement residence near my house. I was shocked at the size of their tomato plants!

Most of them were a metre tall with full-sized slicer tomatoes already starting to ripen! Most of my plants, including the ones I bought from the greenhouse, are still under a foot tall and only three have a couple of tiny fruits so far.

My smallest plant – taken a few days ago. It’s already much bigger.

So, am I really THAT far behind, or were the plants I saw purchased at an almost fully-mature stage? That has to be it, right?

As I’ve lamented before, these last couple of springs have been very cold which is not favourable for tomatoes, especially some of the long-season heirlooms I like to grow. Last year it was late August/early September before I could eat tomatoes from every plant I had, and I’m guessing it’ll be similar this year. I always get a bit nervous when I look at my tiny seedlings in late June, but as long as we can sustain some heat through the month of July they WILL bounce back. It’s already kind of crazy to see how fast the tiny plants I started late from seed have nearly caught up to, or even surpassed, the ones I bought from the greenhouse.

To reiterate – they always catch up! It is the great miracle of tomatoes. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still a little jealous of the people who will be already eating a home-grown tomato in a couple of weeks.

The average size of the ones I started from seed, and growing rapidly

Roll Call

Sharing time! What varieties of tomatoes are you growing this summer? This was not the roster of tomatoes I’d initially planned to be growing this year, but here’s the list of what I’ve got…

Celebrity – I grew this for the first time last year as it was highly recommended by Lyndon Penner at his U of S tomato class. This is a crowd favourite for a reason – really delicious and produces like crazy. I’m doing two of these in 2020.

Juliet – Another Lyndon suggestion that I grew last year. Also an AAS winner like Celebrity. I have had a lot of trouble trying to grow San Marzanos (they always get blossom end rot for some reason), Juliets seemed a bit like a hybrid of a paste and a grape tomato, with amazing flavour, high production, and kept well into the fall on the counter. Growing two, as these freeze well for winter use.

Mamma Mia – The reason I planted Juliet last year was because I was actually looking for Mamma Mia which was sold out everywhere, and Juliet was suggested as a good alternative. It is a paste tomato and allegedly a better alternative to San Marzano for Canadian gardens. I’m excited to try it!

Sunsugar – I usually grow one of these every year. They are always by far the earliest cherry tomatoes, and ridiculously sweet.

Spoon – I have mentioned these before. They are definitely not for everyone but I just love the novelty. They are teensy tiny, saskatoon-berry sized tomatoes on a big plant that gets pretty out of control. They are a pain to pick because they are so small, but I love them in salads and they are a fun conversation starter. My surviving spoon plant came back from the brink of death and is currently about one inch tall, but should be over 4 feet in a month or so if we start getting some consistent sunlight!

Brown Berry – One of my favourite heirloom cherry tomato varieties that I have been growing since my first year of “grownup gardening.” They are not super sweet but still very flavourful and produce well, and a lovely colour.

Ananas Noire – This is my most favourite tomato. They don’t produce well at all, maybe 3-5 tomatoes per plant, and ripen super late in the year. They are ugly AF on the outside but the most gorgeous range of colours when you cut in, and taste almost like a tropical fruit. I look forward to my first bite of an ananas noir every summer.

Pineapple – Apparently Ananas Noire is a variation of pineapple. I cannot recall if I’ve ever grown pineapple before, but I found a pack of seeds in my garage that I ordered in 2012. They germinated and so I’m growing these alongside Ananas Noire to see how much of a difference there is and if I truly prefer one over the other.

Babywine – I have been falling out of love with this variety in recent years. It’s sort of like a smaller Brandywine, and in a good year it tastes amazing but last year was a bad year for tomatoes so my Babywine plants ripened ridiculously late and also had kind of a mealy texture. I’m giving it one last chance this year, but it has been looking sickly since I put it in the ground a few weeks ago.

Big Zac – I’m trading a colleague an extra padron pepper plant for this one. I’d never even heard of this novelty variety but apparently it’s the largest tomato one can grow. It should be interesting! I doubt I’ll get a six-pounder but I’m excited to try it.

Mystery??? – I also had a random variety tomato seed pack in my garage and just planted a bunch of the seeds. Three germinated, and based on the leaf shape and growth pattern they all kind of look like they might be the same variety. Nonetheless it is fun to have some mystery tomatoes whose variety will be a surprise for later in the summer! (Sometimes I don’t label my plants for this very reason.)

In Memoriam

As I mentioned I’m not totally impressed with the above lineup. I’d planned for some new varieties and old favourites, but had a few germination/staying alive issues. RIP to my ungerminated seeds or seedlings that emerged but didn’t make it across the finish line: Black Cherry, Green Grape, Emerald Evergreen, Black Beauty.

I know this site doesn’t exactly have a rollicking comments section but if you feel so inclined I’d love to hear what varieties other people are growing, and am always open to suggestions for what I might try growing next year!

Exposed to the elements

Just a quick update to share that I have taken my red plastic OFF the little tiny seedlings. It appears that they are strong enough that they don’t need any sheltering right now, and because they were so small and low to the ground the “greenhouse” may have actually been shading the plants too much. The seedlings that weren’t sheltered appeared to actually be growing faster than the ones in plastic, and have withstood the crazy winds and rain just fine so far.

If only we would get some heat! I have a feeling we’re in for another late tomato season like last year (June was similarly cool in 2019), so the red plastic greenhouse effect should come in handy in the later months of the summer when I want less growing and more ripening.

Companion Planting

If you want to maximize your garden space, and perhaps even improve the quality and flavour of your tomatoes, companion planting is a great way to accomplish all of these goals!

Companion planting simply means putting plants that grow well together in the same space. Some plants will inhibit each others’ growth or encourage disease or pests, so it is important to research which plants are good companions before filling up your space.

I like to think of companion planting as generally one rule and one exception, to guess which plants will grow well with tomatoes before I look it up to confirm. The rule is – Is it something that tastes good when paired with tomatoes? E.g. onions, garlic, herbs, cucumbers. Most of these plants grow well with tomatoes, however there are exceptions. The exception is – Is it in the same family (nightshade) as tomatoes? E.g. peppers, eggplant, potatoes? If so, they should not be planted with tomatoes because they share common diseases and pests. And the stuff that isn’t naturally a tomato-buddy in the kitchen, like corn, is usually not going to be compatible but it’s always a good idea to look up to be sure!

Another thing to consider is how much sun your tomato plants will allow their companions to get. Some herbs like oregano, thyme, and basil can tolerate shade, so as your tomatoes get bigger over the summer and gradually block out most of the sun from getting to the herbs, this is not that detrimental. Last summer I discovered that parsley does not like its sun access being blocked, as it bolted as soon as it became shaded over. I also tried to do a couple plants of leaf lettuce mixed in with the tomatoes, but they got so little sun that they didn’t survive.

Apparently when tomatoes and basil are grown together, this actually improves the flavour of both – I haven’t done a side-by-side taste test of tomatoes grown with and without basil to verify, but since I heard about it I have always planted basil in with my tomatoes.

I often seed a few nasturtiums in with tomatoes. Supposedly they act as a sacrificial plant; pests that might normally bother tomatoes will be attracted to them instead. You can also eat the nasturtium flowers – I think they taste a bit like arugula – which is a very fun way to fancy up any dish that could use a peppery kick!

When I plant my companion herbs in the tomato bed, I plant them midway between the tomatoes on the outer edge, as close to the edge of the bed as I can. This gives them a bit more access to sun than if they were in the middle. (Sorry that these pictures aren’t great.)

I have no idea if companion planting actually gives me any flavour or pest reduction benefits, but it helps me make the most of my small space, I generally don’t have pests, and my tomatoes always taste pretty good!

Windy City

How have your tomatoes been faring in these ridiculous winds lately? I know that spring in Saskatchewan is always windy and MAYBE this is normal, but it sure feels like it’s been windier than usual!

I’ve had several people tell me that they’re so glad they planted their tomatoes as deep as possible, which has protected them from blowing over. It has surprised me to hear that not everyone, including some people who have been gardening for decades, were not aware of this technique – so I’m happy I was able to share it with a few people this summer.

The day after I wrote my last post, the winds were approaching 100 kph gusts. My largest Celebrity plant, which I was not able to bury all the way to the top due to its size, snapped over. I thought it was probably dead but it was hanging on by a thread and clearly still getting some nutrients, so I heaped up the soil around it a few inches higher and it’s still alive a week later. I assume it will send out roots from the top stem above the snap – crisis averted!

Now that we’ve had a good couple days of soaking rain, I expect things to start taking off. I always find that no matter how much I water my garden with the hose, it doesn’t really get going until the first big rain of the season. I had been gradually planting my tiny seedlings over a few days to make sure they were doing okay in the ground, and put the last couple in right before the rain started.

One other update from the last post – the red plastic covers have worked well and didn’t blow away in the wind, however I also put in several small plants without cover and they’ve been doing just fine on their own. Because I buried them deep, there were no exposed stems to blow around and snap. Once it stops being so windy though I still plan to put the red covers on all of my plants to try and speed up their growth, but it seems it was a bit of overkill as wind protection anyway. Better safe than sorry though!

I meant for this post to be about companion planting, but realized I had a bit more to talk about, so that will be the topic of my next post later this week.