Friday, 28 December 2007

So Many Tomatoes, So Little Time

Those fresh garden tomatoes so longed for in the dead of winter may now present a challenge in producing more than you can use. Secretly many may be happy to see fall come and the tomato vines dry up. There are just so many tomatoes you want to can and so much salsa you want to make. But there are other alternatives for those extra tomatoes.

Many recipes today call for sun-dried tomatoes. This is one way to preserve many tomatoes in a little space. Tomatoes can be dried outside in the sun, in a very slow oven (at 200 degrees), or in a food dehydrator. Drying outside in the sun will take several days and has problems with bugs and animals. It will take at least six hours to dry tomatoes in a food dehydrator, a gadget that many do not own. They will dry overnight (12 hours) in a 200 degree oven — and most everyone has an oven.

Small tomatoes such as cherry, grape or the meaty romas dry best, however, you can use whatever kind of tomatoes you have in excess in the garden. The town house dweller who has a cherry tomato plant on the balcony can dry the extra tomatoes in the oven. Once dried they make great little tomato cups to stuff with cheese, or use as a scoop for dip, use as a chip snack, or drizzle with cheese spread and heat for crispy tomato nachos.

Drying Tomatoes

Preparation for drying: Wash tomatoes well and dry. It’s optional to remove skins; most leave the skins on. Cut tomatoes in half (quarters if tomatoes are large). Remove seeds and the white part, but leave red pulp. A quarter teaspoon measuring spoon works well to remove seeds.

Drying in the oven: Place the tomatoes skin-side down on a cooling rack placed over a baking pan to catch any drips. Sprinkle lightly with salt and dried Italian herbs. Place in 200-degree oven. Check on tomatoes the first hour to assure everything is going well. (After three hours, some cooks like to take enough tomatoes out for supper. Slow-baked tomatoes sprinkled with shredded mozzarella are a real treat.) Check again in 10 hours. It will probably take 12 hours to dry completely. Avoid over drying. Even at 200 degrees the tomatoes can burn if left in the oven too long. At this stage, I like to allow the oven to cool, return the tomatoes to the oven on a baking sheet, turn the oven light on for just a minimum of heat, close the oven door and let the tomatoes have one final hour of drying before storing them.

Storing the dried tomatoes: Place the tomatoes in an air-tight container such as a jar with tight-fitting lid or a plastic bag, being sure to push out all the air. Freezing the dried tomatoes is an option. This seems to preserve the deep red colour. A short 24 hour stay in the freezer is recommended to eliminate bug infestation that so commonly develops in dried foods.

Some recipes call for adding fresh herbs, fresh garlic and oil when storing the dried tomatoes. The FDA has advised that storing fresh herbs and fresh garlic in oil is a dangerous practice. They have advised commercial packers to treat fresh herbs and fresh garlic with vinegar (acid) and to note on the container that the oil should be refrigerated after opening. The same precautions should be taken at home when adding fresh herbs and fresh garlic to oil.

Storing home dried tomatoes in oil is not recommended. Clostridium botulinum bacteria can grow in this atmosphere where no air is present. The bacteria can come into your kitchen on fresh herbs and fresh garlic. Heating to high temperatures cannot assure that the botulinum spores nor the toxin they give off are destroyed. It is a better practice to add oil and herbs to the tomatoes at the time they are to be used. Even with this method, the tomatoes must be refrigerated and should be used within two to three days.

Once you have dried tomatoes in your pantry, here are some ways you can use them. Most often the tomatoes are rehydrated before using in recipes. This can be done by covering the dried tomatoes with warm water and soaking for 30 minutes. Broth or wine are also suitable for rehydrating the tomatoes. Drain and pat dry before adding to a recipe. Chop and add the rehydrated tomatoes to cornbread batter, meat loaf, beef stew, soup (especially vegetable and tomato), dried beans, chili, quiche, macaroni and cheese, Welsh rarebit and stir fry.

Sometimes the crunch of the dried tomato is desirable in dips when soaking them is neither necessary nor desirable. The first taste of your first batch of dried tomatoes will suggest that herb seasoned dried tomatoes make crunchy chip snacks. They also lend themselves well to a quick hors d’oeuvre by stuffing them with a small piece of feta cheese, topped with a large caper or a slice of olive.

Drying tomatoes is easy and can be part of your multi-tasking as you go about your evening routine. Take a few extra tomatoes, put them in the cooling oven (200 degrees) when the supper casserole has come out, take a look at them when you go to bed, and take them out in the morning. It will be a good feeling to find there are a few less tomatoes sitting on the kitchen counter when you come home in the evening. You will enjoy those tomatoes so much more in the first pot of vegetable soup you make this fall.

By Dorothy Rowe

Friday, 14 December 2007

Where there’s muck: a guide to composting

Turning your waste into compost is easy, and your plants will thank you for it

If you have not discovered the joys of making compost, now is the time to try – not least to avoid unpleasant smells emanating from your wheelie bin in hot weather, especially if the council is cutting back refuse collections to once a fortnight. Not only will you be taking a significant eco-friendly measure, you will be doing your garden a great favour. Compost isn’t called “gardener’s gold” for nothing: digging it in improves the texture of the soil, while adding a layer on top and using it as a mulch (aim for a couple of inches) helps fend off weeds. It also boosts the level of friendly bacteria, making for healthier plants.

Do not be put off by earlier composting failures. If they resulted in a slimy, foul-smelling mess, you were probably using one of the Dalek-shaped plastic compost bins that local councils offer for less than a tenner. Lured into buying them by the promise of “no turning necessary”, novices fill them with grass cuttings and kitchen waste, but the result is often a sticky sludge with a pong.

Making compost isn’t difficult, however, if you understand some of the science involved in its creation. Most of what we are likely to throw into a compost heap – peelings from fruit and vegetables, grass clippings and weeds – is “green” waste, which has a high water content and is rich in nitrogen. Used alone, particularly in one of those Dalek containers, it sticks together and doesn’t allow air, which is crucial for decomposition, to enter the pile.

To stop a heap from putrefying, you must layer the “green” material with dryer “brown” material, which is high in carbon. “Browns” include dried leaves, egg boxes, scrunched-up newspaper and the cardboard core of loo rolls. Think of the compost heap as a cake and alternate layers of green and brown, each between 2in and 4in thick. Fill your Dalek composter like this and it will work fine.

Admittedly, vermin, including rats, and even wasps, will be drawn to a compost pile – but, given the benefits, this is no reason not to have one. Make it less attractive to pests by turning and tending the pile regularly, and by keeping it covered and hot so they won’t be able to nest in it. And never add meat scraps.

The low-maintenance pile: if you are happy to make compost slowly, in return for not bothering too much with it, sit the container directly on the earth, so earthworms can rise and break down the pile of waste. Start with some twiggy material at the bottom, which will aerate it, then add alternate layers of “brown” and “green” material, building them up as you go along. Sprinkle soil over the layers (two or three handfuls is enough) to introduce extra bacteria and help the matter to decompose. Or, if you have a friend with an existing pile, ask them to donate a bucket of compost to start you off.

A good alternative is to get a garden-centre bag of manure and throw a few handfuls on every so often. If the pile is dry, sprinkle it with water when you’ve finished adding a layer. Some people like to use a compost accelerator such as Garotta (available from garden centres); others keep a box of lime handy, to stop the pile from becoming too acidic and smelly. But neither is strictly necessary. A pile like this can be made in a plastic compost bin, covered and left to do its own thing. The rate of decomposition will vary, but you should end up with usable compost within a year.

The fast stuff: if you generate lots of kitchen and garden waste, or want to make compost quickly, then you will need two compost bins. Build up a pile in one as explained above, let it settle for a week or two, then turn it into the second bin. Turning the pile regularly and introducing more air causes matter to heat up and break down more quickly, decomposing in four months or less. (Don’t regard turning compost as a chore, either; it can be surprisingly therapeutic and add a bit of calm to your life.) Warmth is as important as air to the process, so keep the pile covered.

Wormeries: this is a good solution for a small household that doesn’t generate much waste. With your wormery comes a set of live worms and bedding for them to start out in. Place small amounts of cut-up, uncooked kitchen waste on top of this – the amount of food is increased as the colony grows. The worms eat their way up through the first layer of food and into the next, leaving the compost behind. The amount created is small, but it produces a rich liquid called leachate, which can be tapped off at the bottom, then diluted and used as a plant food.

Bokashi buckets: bokashi is the Japanese word for fermented organic matter, and this system is unusual because it involves both cooked and uncooked kitchen waste. Read the instructions carefully to see what you can and can’t add. It requires two buckets made with a special plastic impregnated with effective micro-organisms – friendly bacteria, essentially. These start the breakdown process and work to eliminate odour.

Put a layer of food a couple of inches thick in the bucket, then sprinkle on a layer of special bran, again impregnated with those micro-organisms, followed by another layer of food. Continue alternating the layers until the bucket is full, then leave it for 10-14 days while you start a new one. The first bucket can be drained periodically of liquid, which is used to neutralise bacteria in drains or as a plant food.

Once the bokashi has been made, it can be added to your standard compost heap. You can also bury it in the garden and plant over it; it is ideal for hungry crops such as runner beans or even dahlias. The kit isn’t cheap (about £80 for two 18-litre buckets, the biggest available), but the system is extremely useful for reducing the smelly element of a kitchen bin. Larger families may need to buy another bucket to take all the waste generated.

What's the Ultimate Health Giving Secret of Plant Feeding?

Make the World's Best Compost!

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Tomato Growing Advice

If your tomatoes are in growing pots, water them more often than weekly. Even in huge containers, pot-grown tomatoes need more water than those in the ground. Water daily in hot, dry weather and every few days in cooler weather. If tomato foliage wilts on hot afternoons but looks fine in the cooler evenings and mornings, you don't need to water more often.

If he stems of your tomatoes are weak and break off before the fruit ripens. It may be that you are using a water-soluble synthetic fertilizer on pot-grown tomato plants and watering frequently to keep them hydrated. Water soluble fertilizers are easily washed away by daily watering and only last about two weeks at best. As a result, heavy feeders like tomatoes can quickly run short of nutrients, especially if grown in less-than-ideal potting soil. For better results, use a compost-based planting mixture and switch to natural fertilizers that combine quick and slow-release foods. You can also sprinkle corn gluten at the rate of 1 cup per plant every 6-8 weeks. High in nitrogen, corn gluten also keeps tomato plants weed free.

For weak stems, try liquid seaweed. Often used in hydroponic gardening, seaweed extracts like Maxicrop are helpful when plants experience rapid growth during fluctuating weather (like a dry, hot spell followed by a cold, wet week). The fastest growing plant in the world, kelp contains micronutrients, trace elements, plant hormones and growth stimulants. These in turn increase root growth, improve the density and texture of foliage and stems and boost chlorophyll production.

If your tomatoes often get early blight mulch them early and often with used coffee grounds. High in nitrogen, coffee has been reported to have a protective effect against early blight.

Brewed compost tea can also be beneficial for tomatoes. My tea-treated plants are enormous and loaded with tomatoes, while untreated plants are smaller and less productive. In my experience, plants given tea regularly are less likely to get blights, mildew, and so forth. Again in my experience, compost teas are most effective at preventing problems than at fixing them.

Also, keep the foliage dry and prune away any yellowed leaves as soon as you notice them. This creates better air circulation and removes fungus before it spreads.

To avoid mildews, always water the soil, not the plant or the foliage. Mildew can be often suppressed with a mixture of 10 percent milk, 90 percent water, which you DO spray on the leaves early in the morning (so they can dry out quickly). Any kind of milk will do, including powdered. (This works great on squash and cucumbers too.)

More detailed information and advice can be found in How to Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes.

Monday, 3 September 2007

How To Grow Tomatoes Tip 7 - No Dig Gardening

Soil preparation can be back-breaking work - perhaps you would like to know how to grow tomatoes without hours of digging.

The idea of no-dig gardening was developed by an Australian named Esther Deans. It was originally both developed both as a labour saving idea, and a method to rejuvenate badly depleted soil in a vegetable garden.

The process involves starting with layers of newspaper, and by adding lucerne hay, straw and compost in succeeding layers, you can create a growing medium without resorting to heavy digging, and one that is rich in nutrients and which will simplify weeding and encourage your much desired plants to grow. The layers compost together, and greatly encourage earthworms. The gardens are maintained by adding manure, compost, etc., and should not be dug up, as this will undo the good work. I have used this approach to creating vegetable gardens, and it certainly does work.

The principle of not digging has sound foundations. Excessive cultivation of the soil, especially when very wet or very dry, will damage the structure of the soil, and lead to compaction. Such excessive cultivation can also discourage the earthworms, and they are the best free labor a gardener has.

Some followers of permaculture and organic gardening have translated no-dig into never-dig, which I believe is sadly mistaken. If you start with a base soil that is badly compacted, then your no-dig garden will initially work well, but you may find your garden does not continue to perform well. The fertile layer you have built up will encourage the earthworms, but we do know that the worms need to shelter from excessively hot, dry, cold or wet conditions. They have been found to seek shelter from extreme conditions by burrowing more deeply into the soil, sometime many feet down. If they cannot shelter in this way, it is my contention that they will die out or move out.

My belief is that an initial cultivation of the soil before you apply the no-dig system will guarantee a better environment for the worms, and thus a better garden for growing your plants, over the longer term. By all means give the no-dig approach a try – you will be pleased with the result.

You can learn about all sorts of soil preparation techniques in How to Grow Juicy Sweet Tomatoes.

Friday, 31 August 2007

How To Grow Tomatoes Tip 6 - Manure Tea

Manure Tea

If you feel that your tomato plants would benefit from a quick boost, then manure tea is a great way to encourage them. Simply put a couple of shovelfuls of manure into a Hessian bag and then steep it like an outsize teabag in a garbage bin full of water for a day or two until the water is the colour of weak tea. Don’t use it on dry soil, however as it may be too concentrated.

Keep the lid on the garbage bin, the brew smells and will attract flies. It will keep for a week or so, or you can pour any leftovers on the compost heap, along with the contents of the used "teabag".

More detailed information can be found in How to Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

How To Grow Tomatoes Tip 5 - 7 Healthy Reasons to Eat Tomatoes

  1. Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C and potassium. They also pack plenty of the phytochemicals that provide disease prevention benefits. Tomatoes are high in lycopene (a powerful antioxidant) and phenolic compounds. In our diet, 95% of lycopene intake comes from tomatoes and tomato products. It is also found in watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya and rosehip.
  2. Lycopene is the carotenoid that makes tomatoes red. It appears that lycopene can reduce the risk of certain cancers, the eye disorder age-related macular degeneration, atherosclerosis and sun damage to the skin.
  3. Men who eat two or more servings of tomato products average a 35 percent reduction in prostate cancer risk.
  4. Lycopene helps women guard against cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia, (CIN), tumorous tissue growth in the cervix according to research from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Lycopene is a powerful inhibitor of the growth of breast, endometrium (inner lining of the uterus) and lung cancer cells.
  5. Lycopene is better absorbed by the body when it is cooked with some oil. The cooking helps to break down the cell walls of the tomato releasing the lycopene and the oil helps increase its absorption. Japanese scientists found that mixing tomato juice into the drinking water of mice completely prevented them suffering emphysema triggered by tobacco smoke.
  6. Tomatoes also contain Lutein. Lutein is found in the retina of our eyes so it needed for healthy vision. Lutein also appears to lower the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. Lutein may also help to prevent or slow down the thickening of arteries that is called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a major risk for cardiovascular disease.
  7. Tomato products are beneficial in aggressive cancers that have also spread to other parts of the body.

More detailed information can be found in How to Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes.

Monday, 27 August 2007

How To Grow Tomatoes Tip 4 - Fertilising for the Home Gardener

Starter Fertiliser

All plants enjoy substantial amounts of organic matter – manure or compost in the soil. Organic matter holds nutrients in the soil so that they are not lost through leaching. It increases the amount of water your soil can hold as well as microbial activity in the soil, encouraging earthworms and creating a wonderful healthy soil system that produces nice sweet tomatoes.

Compost in the soil takes time to break down and release its nutrients– often up to 2 – 3 months. This means that if you want to use compost alone, it should be dug into the soil at least a month before you wish to plant your tomatoes.

It often helps to add a bit of fertiliser (even if you have used compost) at 5cm (2 inches) below and 5cm (2 inches) to the side of where you plant your seedling. If you put fertiliser directly in contact with the roots you will burn them and your tomato seedling may die or its growth be retarded.

Understanding Fertiliser Units

All fertilizers are generally described by their analysis. This usually consists of 3 figures that respectively label the percentage of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) in a product.

The sequence of N, P and K never changes. However in the USA these units are designated as N - P2O5 – K2O whilst in other countries (such as Australia) the units are N-P-K.

P2O5 means phosphate in the oxide form, as opposed to phosphorus (used in Australia) and K2O is the oxide form of potassium whilst in Australia only K or potassium is used.

You will find full details about fertiliser use (what to put on, when to put it on, how much to put on and how to apply it) in How to Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes. The fertilising chapter also contains valuable advice and photos on recognising and correcting nutrient deficiencies.

Friday, 24 August 2007

How To Grow Tomatoes Tip 3 - Watering Tips

Valuable watering tips

Water thoroughly to encourage the tomato roots to seek water and nutrients deep in the soil. With an extensive, deep root system, the plants will hold up better during dry spells. When watering, soak the soil to a depth of at least 15-20 cm (6-8 inches).

  • Water only when your plants need it. Tomatoes like moisture, but over watering is harmful. You not only waste water, but soggy soil will prevent the roots from getting the air they need. If your plants look a little wilted on a hot, summer afternoon, that’s usually normal. They’ll perk up overnight. If plants are wilted in the morning, don’t wait -- water them! (However remember that certain diseases can also cause wilting.)
  • A thorough soaking every four to five days on light, sandy soils and every seven to ten days on heavy soils is a good general guide for irrigating if you don’t get enough rain.
  • Water early in the day to cut down on evaporation losses and also to give your plants plenty of time to dry out. Wet foliage overnight may help trigger some diseases.
  • With furrow irrigation, drip irrigation or soaker hoses, which all deliver water right at the soil surface and not on the leaves, you can water almost anytime. Try to avoid watering at midday though, because that’s when evaporation losses are highest.
  • Trickle irrigation is the most easily controlled method of irrigation. The equipment is expensive, but is long lasting and saves growers time. It can also be scheduled to deliver constant amounts of water, which can help reduce the incidence of fruit cracking.
  • Use mulch to reduce evaporation, improve water spread and uptake by the plants and reduce disease caused by rain and water splash.

Full details on calculating exact watering requirements (how much, how often for size of plot) plus how to set up a simple irrigation system are provided in How to Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes.

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Tuesday, 21 August 2007

How To Grow Tomatoes Tip 2 - Understanding Your Soil

Understanding your soil is vital when planning how to grow tomatoes in your garden.

Tomatoes will grow in a wide variety of soil types and across a wide range of pHs, although they tend to prefer a pH between 5.5 – 6.8. In order to understand your soil type it is essential that you have an understanding of what pH is and how it can affect the nutrition of your tomatoes.

The term pH defines whether your soil has a tendency towards acid or alkaline. The pH scale runs from 0 – 14, with 7 being neutral. Numbers below 7 indicate acidity and above 7 alkaline. Most soils have a pH in the range 4.5 to 8.5. Tomatoes enjoy a slightly acid soil usually with a pH around 6.5.

The availability (uptake of nutrients from the soil by the plant) of nutrients is affected by soil pH. This is amply demonstrated by the chart at Figure 1.

This shows that most nutrients have greater availability at pHs around 5.5 – 6. pHs can be adjusted: lime will make the soil more alkaline and whilst making the soil more acid is more difficult, usually sulphate-based fertilizers such as sulphate of ammonia and acidic organic material will help.

Testing soil pH can be done simply by mixing soil and water and testing it using a pH meter, testing kit or litmus paper.

Discover more about the methods you can use to improve your soil in the book How To Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes.

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Sunday, 19 August 2007

How To Grow Tomatoes Tip 1 - Pruning Your Tomato Plants

Pruning your Tomato plants

When growing tomatoes, it is important to maximise the efficiency of photosynthesis and limit the amount of disease. To do this the plant needs lots of light and airflow around it.

If a plant is properly pruned and supported, nearly every leaf will have access to the sun. Most of the nutrients and sugars produced are directed towards the newly developing fruit as well as the growing tip. Fruit production does not stop (unless the plant is affected by weather or is lacking in water).

As more and more growing tips are produced, via branches, the plants resources become more divided. This usually results in ever decreasing fruit size in indeterminate tomato varieties. Determinate varieties are self limiting, mainly because of their shorter growing season and more defined fruit setting period.

Those varieties that mature in less than 70 days normally should not require pruning. However, late-season indeterminate varieties often need some of their side shoots or their tops trimmed, to prevent them becoming too bushy or tall. With both determinate and indeterminate varieties, it is best to limit the number of trusses to six or seven in order to get good quality fruit.

Pruning also increases plant health. The leaves of a pruned and supported plant dry off more quickly, which means that fungal and bacterial diseases have less opportunity to spread.

Essentially, staked and pruned plants have fewer problems with fruit rots and leaf spots because their leaves stay drier, and the plant has good airflow around it. Leaves and fruit should never be allowed to sit on the soil.

Discover the two most popular methods of pruning in How to Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

How To Grow Tomatoes

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