Tomato management

Summer rolls on, and the tomatoes keep coming. We’ve done a pretty good job of managing the volume, having made an adjustment to a greater number of large tomato and fewer cherry tomato plants in the garden this year. It’s a major reason why we keep a journal, so we can improve upon each year based on previous years’ learned lessons. Having recently finished putting up our frozen tomatoes for soup and cooking, we moved onto one of our favorite condiments: barbeque sauce.

A couple of years ago J became interested in making homemade BBQ sauce from our tomatoes. We have no complaints with store-bought, but the problem with large gardens and good growing years is that production often outstrips consumption, even when being generous with the neighbors – and we’ve found absolutely no one who eats the same quantity of vegetables we do. Our sauce recipe was a bit of trial and error (this one is version number six of what we’ve tried) but it’s quickly become our favorite.

Cocktail Farmers Best BBQ Sauce

  • 6 lbs tomatoes
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 jalapeno (or other pepper with a kick)
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1 Tbs crushed pepper (black or red, depending on taste preference)
  • 1 Tbs dry mustard
  • 1 Tbs Kosher salt
  • 1 Tbs smoked paprika

Smoke tomatoes, onion, and garlic on a smoker or charcoal grill for 1-2 hours, depending on the volume of vegetables.

Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, and then mill with a fine screen:

In process

Add spices to the tomato puree and boil until reduced by half.

That is an automatic pot stirrer – like that one coworker we all have, but significantly more helpful.

We made a double recipe over the weekend – we smoked twelve pounds of tomatoes + onion, milled and cooled it, and parked it in the fridge for the evening, then finished the sauce and canned it yesterday. All told, it took about 8 1/2 hours which I realize sounds slightly insane, but so are we. The reduction time for the sauce is really where the hours came in – it was almost 5 to get it down to the righ consistency, but we started with 2x the volume for this recipe, so it should be shorter if you go strictly by what I’ve written above.

Twelve pounds of tomatoes made 4 16 oz jars and 3 8 oz jars:

My house has smelled amazing for two days, and I can’t wait to do a brisket in a few weeks.

Summer Reading

During the pandemic (the first year, heaven help us) I made it a point to check out every new cookbook my local library ordered. I had signed up for a weekly email that detailed all new releases available for curbside pickup and made it a point to try out all the new cookbooks that started coming in. It was such a well-known thing at the library that when I missed one, I was asked about it on the phone (and I ended up requesting that book too.)

I still get that weekly email, and just recently noted they had a new book that spoke directly to my gardening and cooking hobbies:

J visibly paled when I showed him the book, and for good reason. It is a delightful mix of garden designs, vegetable descriptions, and recipes. Seriously, look at this:

We have this expanse of lawn off our deck and sunroom, that is bordered by my intensive ornamental gardens that divide the cultivated yard space from the wild spaces that make up a majority of our 2 1/2 acres. It is generally populated by rabbits.

I stood on the deck with the above plan and started talking eagerly to J about turning that expanse of land into another vegetable garden. Eventually, I want to pull all of our vegetable growing back from the back-40 and middle garden to close to the house. My theory is that as we age, our ability to get out and manage those gardens, which don’t have an easy or reliable water source (we use 50 gallon barrels that we fill a couple of times a season, depending on use and weather) and are in full sun, some distance from the house, will be less attractive to us. J did agree that cutting up the lawn was never a bad thing, yet attempted to park this as a retirement-era project.

We’ll see. He did agree that next year we should grow Italian zucchini, which was a suggestion in this book. Check out Ellen Ecker Ogden’s website, and her book here.

Pickles

We are having a great cucumber year. So we decided to make our first batch of pickles this week.

We were down to our last jar of bread & butter pickles from last year, so we decided to start with those. You can tell it’s early in the canning season, because I entertained the idea of cutting the cucumbers with the crinkle cutter.

The struggle with these pickles is that you have to slice and salt them, and leave them for an hour to drain before finishing the recipe. And I always forget that – so when I carve out the time to do them, suddenly I have an hour in the middle of it where I need to do something else while I wait, like laundry. I never learn.

The recipe we use is an old American recipe, that came from my Danish mother-in-law. We used my family’s recipe for a number of years, but then had a jar of hers and decided that was the better recipe. We’ve used it a couple of years now and everyone loves it.

The recipe:

  • 8 cups cucumbers, sliced thin
  • 3 cups onions, sliced thin or chopped*
  • 4 tbsp salt

Sprinkle salt over vegetables and let stand 1 hour

Drain and add

  • 2 cups vinegar
  • 2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 2 tsp celery seed
  • 3” stick of cinnamon
  • 3 cups white sugar
  • 4 green peppers, chopped fine*

Bring syrup to a boiling point, just simmering, for 15-20 minutes.  Pour over cucumbers in hot sterilized jar, and process for 10-15 minutes.

*Use half as many as called for, or omit entirely if you don’t like the taste

The results

8 cups of cucumbers netted us 4 pint jars of pickles. Which is a manageable amount to can; as the season runs on we will end up doing double and triple batches, and most of Sunday afternoon into evening will be spent on canning. I am always grateful for the work come the middle of winter, but in the heat of summer it can be draining.

What a difference two weeks makes

We have been keeping up with the watering, and the weather cooled down for a couple of days, which has been so helpful:

Back 40 – corn in the foreground, ground cherries in the middle and pumpkins towards the back

The advantage – if there is one – to the pandemic is that we are home. All the time. So we’re actually caught up on weeding and have had time to sit and do nothing, which is a new, novel experience. I’ve actually sat in the Adirondack chairs by my fire pit several times this summer, admiring my neatly-sculpted yard:

Of course, when I look at it too long, I see things I want to change, other projects I could be starting, and then remember that the hostas need to be split and moved. The hostas will always need to be split and moved – does anyone actually buy hostas anymore, or are they just divided off one plant, continuing on for all of eternity, that got too large in the Garden of Eden and was cast out along with Adam and Eve? It seems fitting – “Oh hey, since you’re going, how about some plants to get you started?”

Coming Right along

We’re about a month into gardening season, and things are growing steadily, despite the continuing lack of rain. It has required a LOT of watering, which Old McDonald has mostly been handling:

The back garden is not as far along as our new garden, because that area out back is always wet until early June, making it difficult to till until then. On the upside, when the plants start growing, they generally tend to do well due to the drainage in that area. All bets are off in a year that is unusually dry, like this one is, however.

Cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck squash, sunflowers

We rearranged plants this year, moving the cucumbers and squash, which are often beset by bug issues, into the new garden area, leaving the main garden just tomatoes (15 types) and peppers (4 types.)

The raised beds are struggling in the heat – probably because those are usually used for cool-weather crops, like lettuce, arugula, herbs, beets and carrots – and lettuces in particular really don’t like heat.

Every year is always a little different; looks like this year will be the one where the beds struggle. We keep waiting for a break in the heat for another successive planting, but we’ve been thwarted as of late.

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Summer Activities

Greetings! It certainly has been a long time, hasn’t it? We never stopped gardening, I just stopped blogging. In the summer of 2017 I got back into community theater and that has been a whirlwind of productions, either as an actor, writer, director, or producer and has not left much time for keeping up with this site. Now that the pandemic has caused those of us with the option to stay home to social distance, I feel like this is the year to get this blog regularly updated again. I am remembering, however, that I will be struggling for content until the vegetables actually start to be harvested, so you’re in for about 8 weeks of me blathering on about books, other blogs and random plant facts. Watching plants grow is about as exciting as watching plants dry. But if you’re out of options on Netflix, swing on by this blog.

We got off to a great start this year, with good-sized seedlings ready for planting by mid-May:

The indoor greenhouse

Memorial Day weekend has always been our traditional planting weekend, per the advice of my grandfather and this year we got everything in on Friday. First we had some prep work to do:


Daisy (as in “Daisy-cutter”)

We need to redo the fence on the main garden but have not figured out a workable solution to having a removable end piece with any of the options we have been exploring. J has suggested perhaps making the open end near the patio, but that gets into moving the bench, outdoor sink, and rolling across the patio which is not my top choice. J thinks the pie-shaped bed at the end of the garden would make a great rose garden, and I don’t disagree, but absent a workable solution for getting the tiller in there every two years, it needs to be something that gets planted annually.

Speaking of plants, here’s how they look after this weekend:

It’s not very exciting, and it won’t be for a number of weeks. The middle photo captures the newest bed addition, our hops bed – you can barely see the strings reaching up from the bed to an overhead pole designed to encourage the vines to grow up and around the strings. If it works, it should make a really interesting backdrop by mid-summer.

Worth the work

So, more days than not Old MacDonald (sometimes accompanied by me, but I have late hours at the job) has been going out to water the Back 40 garden, and it has absolutely paid off:

Photo Aug 05, 6 19 34 PM

Photo Aug 05, 6 43 18 PM

I can’t get over how good it looks.  He did admit that there have been two applications of fertilizer, which combined with the watering seems to more than be working.  Our experiment with grass clippings is also a success; we’ve been out to weed only twice so far this season and both times took about an hour and a half to do the whole garden.

The secret to our success is a 50-gallon cistern we keep in the back, and refill by running hoses linked together from the house whenever it gets down in volume.

And making her first appearance on the blog, Old MacDonald’s mother and a farmer’s daughter (her father was a farmer in Denmark; apparently farming is genetic but skips generations):

Photo Aug 05, 6 40 50 PM
Like Luke, she’s smart enough to help by watching carefully

Our experiment out back is a success – this was the second picking of beans, just two days after our first round:

Photo Aug 10, 9 08 22 AM

I only wish they didn’t turn green when cooked.

It’s a long, hot summer

I can’t believe how long it’s been since we had any substantial rain.  Thank goodness we have the drip irrigation in the main garden and the raised beds:

Main Garden 7-27

Raised Beds 7-27

For the first time in ages, the cucumbers are actually doing something, and will bear fruit:

Cucumber 7-27
Lush cucumbers, dead lawn behind them

Powder mold, squash beetles and other environmental factors have contributed to the lackluster performance over the last few years.  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to make homemade pickles.  That might be changing this year.

Of course, we’re still being supervised:

I love hard work, I could watch it all day
I love hard work, I could watch it all day

The nicest thing about this cat is that he wants 5-10 very intense minutes of your attention, and then he moves off to stalk birds or mice or just snooze a bit.  We were commenting the other day about our luck in getting neighborhood cats that actually give us the time of day.  Even better when they keep away the destructive pests.

The first weeks are always the hardest

The growing season is now underway, with the plants doing remarkably well:

Main gardenMain garden 6-26

I love that picture because it’s a beautiful shot of an Adirondack chair I never get to sit in.

There’s also a critter in the garden:

Luke Main Garden 6-26
Luke

This is our neighbor Luke, who arrived with the new neighbors when they moved in across the street last spring.  Can’t have an updated garden blog without photos of a neighbor’s cat.  He’s reasonably helpful:

Watching for chipmunks
Watching for chipmunks

He’s actually a better birder but we’ve seen him snag a chipmunk or two.  Good kitty!

He’s not much help with the rabbits, though:

Frolicking
Frolicking

Fortunately this year we have not had a moment where I’ve spotted them in the garden because they can squeeze through the fence.  It seems like our bobcat from years past may not be around, because there are a lot of them.  It was a mild winter, however.

Even the Back 40 is coming along nicely:

Back 40 Second Photo

As part of our new crusade to pay more attention to this garden, we’ve been watering.  It’s pretty dry here – there was very little snow this year, and it hasn’t rained much at all.  It’s a pain to walk out there to water, but we figure it will give the seedlings their best chance.

Adventures in aggressive suburban gardening