Harvest Time

It has been a busy season around here.  We’re freezing batches of green beans as fast as we can pick them (we have over nine pounds in the freezer as of last night), every meal includes zucchini — even dessert (in case you’ve never tried it:  zucchini bread tastes just like banana bread), lunch is usually a ripe tomato and mayo sandwich, and we’re busy sterilizing mason jars regularly to fill with spaghetti and marinara sauces.

What we haven’t grown ourselves this year, we are buying locally.  Clyde’s Fresh Produce in Grovetown has us stocked up on sweet non-GMO corn for plenty of soups/chowder this winter.
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I’ve frozen the last batch of the amazing sweet peaches great uncle Fred had left over from the family reunion to make a few cobblers or maybe to grill and drizzle in honey this winter when it feels like the season will never end.

Bernice’s Blueberry Patch in Thomson had a $1/lb picking day so Haven and I ventured out in the triple digit heat to fill up a bucket and came home with five pounds of delicious blueberries.

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We’re busy making a list of the remaining produce we need to purchase locally to get us through the winter, including potatoes and onions (my favorite fall/winter ingredients).  We’re  only half way through our summer growing season but we’re already planning our fall garden, which will involve some guessing since the time between too hot and too cold is kind of non-existent in our little corner of the world.

In the height of bean picking and tomato slicing, we welcomed some new additions to our home!

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We now have two Silkie chicks that we’re guessing (it’s still early) are male and female.  If that’s the case, these chicks will be called Johnny and June.

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Haven has been amazing with these babies.  I’m surprised by how gentle she is, considering she still loves our dog Riley so much she puts her in a sleeper hold for a hug.

And last but certainly not least is our sweet kid Darla.  Or, “Baby Darla” as Haven likes to correct me.  Her mama NeNe is also staying with us so Darla can continue to nurse.

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We’ve grown tomatoes for several years but this year is the first that I’ve studied up on them.  I wanted to learn what causes and may prevent blossom end rot, why some plants seem to abruptly stop producing in the middle of summer, and the differences between hybrid and heirloom tomatoes.

This year we purchased four varieties of heirloom tomato seeds from www.seedsavers.org.  Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Silvery Fir, and Roma.

Roma are probably the most well known and widely used.  They grow beautifully through the sweltering heat of summer and are perfect for canning because they are firm and thicken well into sauces and paste.
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I read about Silvery Fir tomatoes in the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.  She mentioned they were early and prolific producers and I bookmarked the page on a cold day in December to remember to search the seed catalogs that were beginning to show up in the mailbox.
The Brandywine and Mortgage Lifters varieties were researched on Seed Savers Exchange and we decided they were worth a try.

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The fun in growing your own food is that you have a choice in what exactly will end up on your plate.

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Here’s some information I’ve gathered that I’d like to share with you if you’re interested in growing your own tomatoes:

  • Heirloom vs. Hybrid:
    Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been grown for at least 3 generations.  They are produced through natural open pollination (i.e. bees pollinate the flowers).  The plants grown from heirloom seed will be consistent with the parent plant and bear identical fruit.  While these tomatoes are usually misshapen with unusual colors, the flavor is thought to be superior to hybrid varieties.
    Hybrid seeds are produced by artificially cross pollinating related plants to improve on the characteristics of the plants.  Hybrids are easily found in home and garden centers ready to plant, and since they are “bred” for improvement, they are usually disease resistant and yield more fruit than heirlooms.  Seeds cannot be saved and replanted in the future because they will not produce “true to type” plants.

 

  • There are two types of tomato plants:  determinate and indeterminate.
    Determinate plants are vines that grow up to 8 feet tall and typically produce up to the first frost.
    Indeterminate plants are bushy and won’t grow much taller than 3 feet, producing all fruits at the same time.  These are great for small yards or grown in containers on patios.

 

  • Most tomato plants will not set fruit when temperatures are above 90 degrees.  
    If you’ve noticed your plants aren’t flowering as they were at beginning of the season or if the tomatoes on your plants aren’t ripening, it’s probably the temperature to blame!  Once they reached mature size (based on variety), you can pick them and let them ripen on a sunny window sill.
    If you have no flowers or tomatoes on your plants, be patient!  Keep watering and wait for the temperatures to drop.  Dry spells will stress out the plants and discourage further flowering.

 

  • Tomato plants want at least 10 hour of direct sunlight each day.

 

  • The black lesions you sometimes find on the bottom of tomatoes is known as blossom end rot.  Low calcium levels in your soil can be responsible for this.
    When we transplant our seedlings into the garden, we dig a deep hole so about half the plant will be buried and add compost and egg shells (thanks for that extra calcium boost, backyard chickens!)
    Consistent watering is also thought to prevent blossom end rot.  We water each morning before the sun is fully up.  Overwatering will dilute the flavor of your tomatoes and can cause cracks in the fruit.

 

  • Speaking of watering:  try not to spray the leaves of your plant.  Water the soil at the base so the roots are drinking in that water and you won’t blister your ‘maters or discolor the leaves.

 

  • Compost is always helpful.  We add a handful around the base of each plant every month to promote production.

 

  • If you are growing your plants from seed rather than purchasing plants, start them indoors around 8 weeks before the last frost.  (You can check online to find the average first/last frost dates in your area)
    Plant your seedlings outdoors once temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees.

 

So while I’ve been dreaming up all the creative ways to preserve our tomato harvest (marinara and spaghetti sauces, stewed, salsa…), I thought about sun dried tomatoes.  They can be expensive in grocery stores and I just don’t have the patience to leave the slices in the hot sun for three days.  So I found the perfect short cut to “sun dried” tomatoes:  the food dehydrator!

My amazing mom-in-law gave this to us a couple years ago and I’m sad to say it has been stored away in the pantry for far too long.  Now that we’re growing so much of our own food, I’m sure it’ll have a place on the counter throughout the summer.  Or, you know, it’ll set out because I’m too lazy to wash the trays.

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I collected around a pound of Roma tomatoes and tossed in a couple of the “meatier” Brandywines for fun.

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Next, I washed them off in the sink and cut them in to 1/4″ to 1/2″ slices.  Romas are sized so that you could just slice them in half and put them in the dehydrator, but remember that the larger the slice, the longer it will take to dry.

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Love these gorgeous colors!

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Our dehydrator doesn’t have a temperature gauge or timer, so I was kind of winging it, which is how I live my life, man.  I’m just winging it.  (That was my spaced-out Janis Joplin voice there.)

I filled up the four trays included with the dehydrator, plugged it in, and checked back 8 hours later.

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Nice and shriveled!  I think with the thin slices I had, I could’ve gone just 7 hours. I’d say 10 hours is best for Romas sliced in half.  It will all depend on the food dehydrator you use so as a reference:  You want the tomatoes to be bendy but not snap in half.

I chose to pack mine without oil in a sterilized pint sized mason jar* and they should keep up to 9 months in the fridge!  I can choose what to add to mine depending on the dish I cook.  I see olive oil and chopped rosemary accompanying these sun dried tomatoes over a bed of tilapia or chicken in the future.

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*A pound of dried Roma tomatoes filled a pint size mason jar completely.

Thoughts on eating tomatoes:

-If you don’t like fried green tomatoes, you’re wrong.

-Pick each variety of tomato at different stages and give it a taste.  The flavor changes so much as the fruit matures.  You may like them under or over ripe but you’ll never know until you try!

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