Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tree Tomato Preserves

 This year my tree tomato bore fruit for the first time.  I planted it last fall in my front yard in Berkeley, from a seedling bought at the Merritt College plant sale.  Tree tomatoes, also called Tamarillos, are native to South and Central America, and are in the solanaceae family, although the fruit and leaves more closely resemble eggplants than tomatoes.  My next door neighbor grew up eating them in Australia.  It's not a "true tree" as the trunk doesn't get woody, but they can reach up to 20 feet tall.  It was easy to grow, although it needs protection from frost in the winter.  This plant is about 6 feet tall now, and I plan to keep it pruned to under 10 feet.  Most fruits I've seen are red; this one is from Ecuador, and bears yellow-orange fruit.  The tree is prolific--this is my second harvest of about 15 fruits, with more green ones on the way.  They don't taste very good raw--sweeter than a tomato, but with a strong bitterness.  (My neighbor suggests letting the fruit get a bit "wrinkled"--maybe off the tree.) 

Meanwhile, I consulted good old Joy of Cooking, which had a recipe for tomato preserves, and the result was a tangy, thick preserves reminiscent of apricot, but more flavorful.  This is my adaptation:

You'll need:
  • Tree tomatoes (12 - 15)
  • sugar (the recipe said to use an "equal amount of sugar as tomatoes, but I thought that would be way too much sweetener--I used one cup of sugar to about a quart of fruit)
  • juice and grated rind of one lemon
  • one cinnamon stick or candied ginger

 First, wash the tamarillos, and blanche in hot water--I cooked them for a few minutes; they are tougher skinned than tomatoes.  About 3 minutes, and they start to split.

 Peel the tamarillos and place in a bowl.  I cut a few open to show how they resemble tomatoes, and also remind me of guavas.  Cover with sugar and let stand overnight.  I don't know how this recipe would work with other types of sweeteners like honey or maple syrup, but it would be worth trying.
 Let stand overnight.  The next morning, pour off the juice and boil in a covered saucepan.  The recipe said "until heavy drops fall off a spoon" but that was too vague for me.  I boiled it hard for 10-15 minutes, and then moved on to the next step, which is to add the fruit, lemon, cinnamon or ginger and cook on low "until soft" (about an hour--I didn't time it).  At some point, I checked it and smushed the fruit with a wooden spoon.  (Sorry, I didn't photograph the cooking part!)
 The recipe yielded about three cups. Make sure you sterilize the jar first.
 The result is a chunky, seedy spread, tangy and tart/sweet.  I find it tasty.  Next time I plan to try using the ginger instead of cinnamon, and maybe a different sweetener.
If you try this recipe, or if you have grown tamarillos and have a favorite recipe, I'd love to hear about your experience.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Benefits of Compost: the tale of two pumpkins

The roots of nourishment? Don't yawn--it's all about the soil! The secret to growing delicious, robust vegetables and grains filled with nutrients required for good health depends on the fertility of the soil. And one of the best ways to sustainably insure fertile soil is by making and using compost (every season!).

O.k. Consider the following photograph, which tells the tale of two pumpkins:

I grew both these pumpkins a few summers ago, planted from seeds from the same package ("Cinderella" pumpkins, or "Rouge Vif d'Etampes"), grown in the same climate, within a mile of each other, with similar watering regiments and sunlight. The only difference was one was grown in loose garden soil enriched with about a cubic foot of compost, and the other was grown in hard packed greyish clay soil. Yep, you guessed it, the one on the left grew in the compost. (The color difference between the two pumpkins reflects the relative age of each--the larger one is not as "ripe" as the one on the right; it turned redder as it matured, in this case off the vine).

Which pumpkin would you rather eat? Which would you rather carve for Halloween? If you had a limited amount of space and a large family, which pumpkin would bring more calories per square foot of growing space? Most of us could agree that the pumpkin on the left would be preferred in all these cases.

There are many ways to enrich or amend soil to make it more fertile. Compost is one of the best ways to do this. Of the many benefits of compost:
  • It makes the soil better able to retain moisture, which means more water is available to the plants at depth, leading to stronger roots better able to take up nutrients
  • It balances the pH of the soil
  • It creates a home for beneficial microbes and worms, which create soil
  • It contains a balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace elements which feeds plants, encouraging both leafy growth and robust fruiting.
  • Finished compost won't burn plants, and can be used as a mulch or mixed in
  • It interacts chemically with the rock particles in the soil to foster soil formation
  • It is a free and easy to make, recycles garden and kitchen waste, and smells good if you do it right.
  • It's renewable and potentially sustainable
You thought oil was black gold? Wrong. It's compost. The man who pulls aside the Dustin Hoffman character of today's "Graduate" would whisper not "plastic", but "Compost. The future is Compost." And, just like vegetables, the best compost is home grown.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Building your soil--what to do with cover crop

Nodules on a fava bean root
Plant life is just incredible. Some plants actually feed the soil while they grow. A cover crop, also called a "green manure", is a plant that fixes nitrogen in the soil. Actually, the plant doesn't fix the nitrogen, but bacteria which live in a symbiotic relationship with the roots do this. Nitrogen exists as a gas in the atmosphere, which is unavailable to plants. Some plants are able to absorb nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots on nodules. The nodules are white bulbous growths on the roots. The presence of nodules doesn't always mean fixation--cut them open, and if they're pink, they have fixed nitrogen.

Plants in the legume family, notably beans, peas, and clover, and also weeds like vetch will host nitrogen fixing bacteria. There may be other kinds of plants which do this too--some grasses like oats, may also help fix nitrogen. The bacteria usually are already present in the soil. But to be sure of their presence, you can first innoculate the seeds with the appropriate bacteria, available from a mail order farm supply store. The way cover crops work, you grow the plants from seed (innoculated or not), and when the plants have grown and are 50% in flower, you dig them into the soil. For less soil disturbance, you can simply cut them down, and mulch them in place. (Note: favas will resprout if the roots are not dug up)

For this reason, you probably don't want to grow super delicious snap peas to fix nitrogen--because you would destroy the plants before the peas form. My understanding is it's an "either/or" situation--either you eat the crop, or you dig it in to fix nitrogen. For this reason, most cover crops are things people don't tend to eat--some nurseries or seed companies sell a mix of bell beans, vetch, and some kind of oatstraw--all "weedy" things that grow well, but can be turned under without any regret. Fava beans are dual purpose, so you could grow some to eat, and turn under some also.

Farmers turn under the crop with a disk harrow (plough takes it too deep to do any good), but the small scale grower can just use a shovel. I cut the favas first , and then dig them in to the soil about 6 inches or less. (Children may enjoy doing this). There will still be some pieces above the ground, but the roots should be thoroughly disturbed, and most of the greenery buried. Then I cover the area with rice straw (I buy a bale from the local horse track, and let the chickens use it first), about 2 or 3 inches thick. It has to sit at least a month before you can plant into it. In a month, you won't see any greens, only dark rich soil.

Don't forget to water it in the meantime, as this enables the microbes to break it down!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Why I love Fava Beans

If I said potatoes were the easiest vegetables to grow, I misspoke--fava beans have got to be the easiest edible plant to grow. Or at least in the top ten. That's not the only reason why I love them. The other reasons are: they don't need to be staked, they like cold weather and aren't bothered by even a hard frost, they are beautiful plants with sweet smelling flowers which honeybees like, the leaves are edible raw in salads, the roots fix nitrogen in the soil--so growing them can improve your soil, and the beans are tasty. I also read that they can be used as a treatment for parkinson's disease--they have some chemical that is helpful, but check with your doctor before you try it.

The only downside to fava beans that I can see is that you have to peel the larger beans twice, which is a lot of work. But, you can eat the smaller beans pod and all, and I have made great stew with them--just add a little beef.

March is not the right time to plant fava beans in our zone (9b), because they don't like hot weather, it seems. But they would be a great thing to plant now in colder climates. Here, I plant them in the fall, and they grow all winter, where we get lows in the 30's. Now is the time of year when they are tall, flowering, beginning to produce beans.

I like to eat them, but I also grow them as a cover crop to improve the soil. If you grew them as a cover crop, now is the time to turn them under and mulch them. More about that another time.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Build a mini-greenhouse

pumpkins, beans, soy beans survive low 40's in a mini greenhouse

Why build a mini-greenhouse? Well, even if you have a sunny windowsill inside, chances are it only gets sun part of the day. If you're sprouting tomatoes or squash, which will be on the sill for a month or so until the nights are warm enough to be outside, they'll get "leggy". In other words, they won't have the amount of light they'd prefer, so they'll be stretching to reach the sun. Leggy starts don't look so good, although they'll do o.k. once in the ground. They will be weaker plants than those that get the light they need.

One solution is to buy a grow light station, with electric lights suspended over the seedlings. These can be expensive, but you can find inexpensive ones. It's a fine solution to the problem, although if you are like me perhaps you want to try to grow your food without the use of fossil fuels. (as much as possible--after all, I use plastic pots...)

A greenhouse gives the plant the light it needs, along with protection from the cold. Most people living in the city don't have the space for a greenhouse, and they can be costly. A mini-greenhouse is a plastic covered frame tall enough to accommodate young plants as they grow, and provide protection from the cold. It's easy to make one. Here's one I made out of old metal coat hangers and discarded plastic sheeting from the laminating machine at the school where I work.

You'll need: wire coat hangers, flexible wire to attach, wire cutters, pliers, plastic sheeting, heavy duty clear plastic tape, and some patience.

I used a planting tray to size the greenhouse. That way, once the pots are inside, the top will stay in place without any other secures. Shape the wire coat hangers with the pliers and attach them with the flexible wire. Cut the plastic sheeting to fit the frame, and tape it in place. (I did this one frame at a time). I put the top on a "hinge" made out of three pieces of flexible wire poked through the plastic sheeting, and attaching the cover to the body. An improvement to this design would be a way to fasten the cover to the body when closed--it stays closed if it isn't windy, but when the wind blows, the top comes open, which exposes the plants to the cold.

During the day, with temps in the high 50's or 60's, it's fine to have the top open--even desireable, since the inside can be 10 to 15 degrees warmer on a cloudy day. In the full sun, they might cook. At night, with the cover closed, the plants inside will stay in the 50's when outside temps are in the 40's. You do have to watch them to keep them moist, but they won't dry out as often as plants in the open do. Notice that the plants are not in airtight conditions, which would encourage mold.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The case for starting seeds

A happy pumpkin sprout

Starting vegetables from seed is not difficult, but does require some attention. I like to do it because I can grow what I want, it gives me a closer relationship to how the plant grows, and it's much cheaper than buying starts at the nursery. The main things to know about starting seeds is to use a good potting soil, plant the seeds the depth they want, and keep the soil consistently moist.

A good potting soil is one that is moist, has some drainage elements like vermiculite or sand, and is sterile. Unless you really know what you're doing, or you feel confident mixing your own potting soil, just get some at a nursery--I tend to buy the more expensive soil just because I know the seeds will do better in it. Cheap potting soil usually doesn't moisten evenly, has large chunky pieces, is difficult to work with, and generally isn't much of a deal in my opinion.

Planting the seeds the depth they want means don't plant them too deep! Too shallow can be a problem, too. Check the packet, if you bought the seeds in a packet. Otherwise, the general rule is that seeds are planted twice the depth of their diameter--so small seeds will be planted in a shallow hole, and large seeds will need a deeper hole. There are exceptions to this rule--some small seeds I don't even bury--lettuce, dill, poppies and anything with a seed barely visible I just pat into the soil surface. Brassicas like brocolli, collards, and kale, have tiny seeds, but like to be planted at a half inch depth.

Anything with a really large seed I usually plant directly into the soil--beans, peas, corn, pumpkins. Especially the first three will outgrow their little pot in a few weeks, so starting them in pots only buys you a short amount of time. Also, there are some plants that don't like to be transplanted--it can be done, but they lose some growing time, or may not make it. Carrots, sunflowers, cilantro, and beets are some that come to mind. They do best when directly planted in the garden.

March is a good time to start seeds--if you start seedlings of plants that prefer warm weather, you can get a jump on the season. Warm season crops are a good thing to start now from seed--put them inside on a sunny windowsill. Tomatoes, corn, peppers, summer squash, pumpkins and other winter squash. Especially this year, the tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash crops were damaged in Mexico, and the grocery had a letter explaining why the price of these three crops will be more expensive in the coming months. This is the year to grow those crops yourself, and save some money.

In our climate, zone 9b, many things can be started in pots and left out overnight this time of year. Lettuce, radishes, broccoli, and others in the brassica family (kale, kohl rabi, cabbage, etc.), bulbing fennel, amaranth, quinoa. (This is what I have sprouting right now). If you have a really hot summer, don't start brussels sprouts, or sugar snap peas, or any cold season crop that has a long growing season. In South Berkeley where I live, we have a lot of fog in the summer, and last summer I barely took off my sweater, so those rules may not apply for us.

Planting vegetables from seeds is a great activity to do with kids: they will have a great appreciation when eating, but even before then, watching the plants grow is great fun. The best part is watching the seeds sprout. This is the time when the plants need the most babying--they must not be allowed to dry out, so careful checking every day, and usually daily watering is necessary. It takes time, but pays off.

As you watch seeds sprout, you'll get the know the character of each type--the fuzziness of tomatoes, the bold nature of bean sprouts, the tall skinny onions bent double at first, the tiny lettuce sprouts that even in their first leaves show the color and pattern they will take on, the heart shaped radish sprouts, the cloverlike shape of brassicas. To sprout seeds is to witness the miracle of life itself. It reminds us we are a part of this thing we call "nature"--we influence it, we are present in it, we are connected to all those who have grown plants in the past, and all those who will grow them when we are gone. So, plant your seeds. It's not just salad you will grow.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Watermelon radishes

The first day of March, and the weather is cold, heading into another rainstorm. Meanwhile, inside there are a variety of little sprouts growing steadily, waiting for warmer weather ahead.

One of the easiest things to grow is radishes. They grow in any season here in the east bay, and in less than a month you can harvest your crop, which makes them perfect to grow with children.
This year I'm growing watermelon radishes, which are an Asian radish variety, green on the outside and pink on the inside, thus the name. They make a colorful addition to salads, and have a mild flavor.

It's easy to start the seeds inside. One benefit of starting your own seeds is you get to see how the sprouts look. All radishes, despite the variety, look similar as a sprout. Once you have grown them a few times, you'll recognize the sprouts anywhere you see them. When they get their second set of leaves, you can transplant them outside. If you don't have a space to grow them in the ground, you can grow them in a pot, as long as you have at least six inches of soil depth. The plants need to be at least an inch apart, but further than two inches apart is wasting space.

Radish leaves can be eaten if cooked--they would probably taste best stir fried, like a turnip green. I haven't tried them, but they are edible. Having grown radishes, I can recognize the adult leaves anywhere, and notice a number of types of wild radish--some are tiny and grow like weeds among lawns. Others are tall, with beautiful white or pink flowers that develop in the late Spring or early summer. These grow in fields and abandoned lots, and near the ocean. They grow at the Berkeley marina, where I've seen a man pick and eat the pods (seeds). When you grow radishes, you will begin to notice them everywhere, and they will become one of your friends.