Banish Blossom Rot & Save the Salsa!

Ripe tomatoes in greenhouse

Are you celebrating opening day this week? Baseball? No. No. No. Farmer’s market opening day, silly!  Our local market officially opens for the season this Saturday.

It’s a day I look forward to all winter long. Time to start planning the garden, and deciding which veggies I’ll put in this year.

Tomatoes, however, are a no-brainer. I’ve planted about 18 vegetable gardens of my own over the years.  And tomatoes are always the stars of the show.

If there is a mistake to be made in planting tomatoes, I have made it.

I’ve started tomatoes from seed, and experienced long, leggy seedlings that grew too thin and sideways, because I didn’t have a light source directly above, and didn’t rotate the seed tray enough.

tomato plants

My go-to tomatoes are Early Girl, Roma, San Marzano, Brandywine and Sweet 100s.

I’ve lost young tomato plants I started indoors, because I neglected to harden them off, by gradually introducing them to the outdoors for hours at a time, then bringing them back in.  These tender young plants need time to adjust to the elements – wind, direct sun, and temperature fluctuation. Truth be told, I just buy started plants at the farmer’s market now.

I’ve made the mistake of planting THREE cherry tomato plants (Sweet 100s are a fave) and ended up with eight billion of the sweet little nuggets of tomatoey goodness – more tomatoes than any one family could eat in a lifetime.

Close up of cherry tomatoes growing in a vegetable garden

But most distressing for me are the common problems that tomato-growers everywhere have experienced at one time or another that occur once the tomatoes start to bear fruit. By that time, it’s almost too late to salvage the plant for the season, and all that nurturing was for naught.

So rather than wait to diagnose tomato troubles mid-season, this year I decided to do some research to head them off at the pass. Stop blight, blossom rot and cracking before they have a chance to take root. Here are some of my top tomato tips:

  1. I have a relatively big garden for a small suburban backyard. It’s approximately 40 feet long. There are a couple of reasons why this is important. First, plant spacing. Adequate spacing between plants prevents the leaves of one plant from touching those of another. Not only does this allow air to circulate, but it prevents disease and pests from easily transferring from one plant to another. Secondly, I rotate my crops. Diseases can stay in your soil from year to year, so I try not to plant my tomatoes at the same end of the garden, or in the same row for consecutive years. Note: Planting tomatoes in a large pot on a patio is a fantastic option for apartment dwellers. I’ve done this, too. You’ll be surprised at the number of tomatoes that one well-cared for plant will produce.
  2. Have you ever had your soil checked? This isn’t an absolute necessity. But it takes the guesswork out of whether your tomato plant is getting the nutrients it needs to thrive. I like to add well-composted, aged manure directly to the soil I’m planting in.
  3. Plant tomatoes deep. A good rule of thumb is 2/3 of the plant should be underground. Planting tomatoes deep will help establish a stronger root system which helps them to survive hot weather and support more fruit.
  4. Support your plants. My grandpa always used 2-inch wood stakes and tied the stems to the stakes with one-inch strips of his old t-shirts. They sell special spongy ties now, but the t-shirt trick is more economical. I use tomato cages myself. I found some round cages that are powder-coated in rainbow colors that make me happy and brighten up the garden. They’re thick and sturdy enough that I don’t have to replace them every year like the other thin or collapsible cages.
  5. Mulch! Mulching around the base of your tomato plants will prevent a variety of the most common tomato maladies. Not only does mulch help conserve moisture, but it also helps prevent the spread of disease. Straw works great as mulch, but there are a variety of other mulches available at your local garden center.
  6. Water! Almost every tomato problem you can name from cracking to blossom rot stems from uneven watering.
Cracked tomatoes

Cracking from uneven watering

Cracking for instance develops as a result of uneven watering, or a period of drought followed by over-watering. The skin can’t stretch to accommodate the fluid build-up, and splits.  The tomato becomes like an over-filled water balloon.

Blight is a fungus that shows up as those dark concentric circles on yellowed leaves, which can occur from wet leaves. Sometimes simply removing damaged leaves is enough, but if the weather won’t comply, you’ll need to remove the whole plant.

Blossom Rot

Blossom rot – Add more calcium

Blossom rot is another problem brought on by drought stress and inadequate watering resulting in a lack of calcium in the soil. The calcium doesn’t move up through the plant quickly enough and the tissue on the blossom-end, turns black and breaks down. You can spray tomatoes with a calcium solution as a stop-gap measure.

A good rule of thumb is to water regularly, but sparingly. Your tomato plants need approximately 1 – 1 ½ inches of water a week. A good soaker hose with a timer is your best bet.

Finally, tomatoes degrade and lose flavor if left too long on the vine or exposed to temperature of 40 degrees or less. You can tell a ripe tomato by a green gel around the seeds. Once the gel turns clear, the tomato is overripe and the flavor diminishes.  Store your ripe tomatoes on the counter to keep them ripe and flavorful as long as possible.

Did you know that adding Epsom salts to amend the soil results in larger, tastier yields? Have you tried adding coffee grounds, egg shells or fish scales when planting your tomatoes? If you have any tried and true tomato tips, I would love to hear them. Please share in the comments!

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie B, will be up at 6 a.m. on Saturday to get her parking spot at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market.

From Garden to Table: Time to Get Your Zucchini On!

I love vegetables, especially if they’re fresh from the garden. This year, I can actually say we’ll be enjoying zucchini, cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, and sweet corn from our very own garden!

After 20 some years without one, it’s about time.

I have to give my husband all the credit as he did the tilling, planting and tending. In my defense, he’s semi-retired so he has the time to do it. I don’t.

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San Marzano tomatoes from blogger Mel B.’s garden last summer. She blanched, peeled, and froze these in Zip-Loc freezer bags to use in sauces throughout the fall and winter.

The tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet (I can’t wait for BLTs! I also like them sliced with a bit of salt & pepper – my mouth is watering just thinking about it!)

The zucchini and cucumbers, on the other hand, are growing like crazy! In fact, my husband brought in a giant, blimp of a zucchini the other day. My first thought was, what the heck am I going to do with this?! Since I couldn’t exactly use it as a door stopper, I had to come up with other uses for this humongous summer squash. So, I searched online for recipes featuring zucchini as one of the main ingredients, and found the perfect recipe for Chocolate Zucchini Bread on allrecipes.com (see recipe below). I figured as long as there’s chocolate in it, my husband and son will eat it (make that devour it!).

Because I had a surplus of the green stuff, I made a double batch. I kept one cake-size pan of it at home and brought a loaf in to work to share. I must admit I’m not much of a baker (I don’t have the patience and usually make a huge mess in the kitchen), but I’m proud to say my zucchini bread was a big hit with both my family and co-workers.

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Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Ingredients
2 (1 ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate
3 eggs
2 cups white sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups grated zucchini
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease two 9×5 inch loaf pans. In a microwave-safe bowl, microwave chocolate until melted. Stir occasionally until chocolate is smooth.
2. In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, oil, grated zucchini, vanilla and chocolate; beat well. Stir in the flour baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared loaf pans.
3. Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a loaf comes out clean.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2015 Allrecipes.com

This is my own recipe for a super-easy side dish you can whip up using fresh zucchini and tomatoes.

Zucchini & Tomato Parmesan

Ingredients:
3 medium-size zucchini, sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped or 2 cans stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup diced onions
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. olive oil
Italian seasoning (basil & oregano) to taste

Directions: In large skillet, sauté zucchini, tomatoes and onions in hot olive oil for 5 minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and seasoning. Stir to coat well. Serve hot.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

This is a recipe that Smart Perks blogger Mel B. has been enjoying since she was a little girl. It was her grandmother’s recipe.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk (milk w/lemon juice or vinegar 1/2 tbsp for 1/2 cup milk)
2 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cup flour
1 tbsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
5 tbsp. cocoa powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups grated zucchini

Topping: 1/3 cup chocolate chips, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Directions: Combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients. Pour into 13 x 9 greased and floured cake pan. Sprinkle topping over all. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.

Even if you don’t have a garden of your own, you can find fresh zucchini and other healthy, delicious and home-grown produce at your local farmer’s market.

Whether your veggies are the fruits of your labor, or your local grower, enjoy the fresh taste of summer!

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Little dog, big zucchini. Home office dog, Beanie.

Smart Perks Blogger, Catherine B, a Smart Perks employee.

Seed Starting for Newbies – Greetings from Zone 4!

united beauty of vegetables

Greetings from Zone 4? No, that is not the title of a science fiction novel.

Zone 4 is the plant hardiness zone for Smart Perks headquarters in Minnesnowdah. But regardless of where you live in the U.S., with spring right around the corner, it’s a good time to start thinking about seed-starting for your vegetable garden.

I’ve started seeds indoors for over a decade now. It’s a great way to save money by avoiding nursery prices, and I typically have more than enough plants leftover after mine are in the ground, to share with friends and family.

Have you seen the price of a grocery store tomato lately? You shouldn’t have to make a choice between a child’s college education and a tomato! Besides the savings, starting seeds indoors will bring a little summertime to your home during a cool, damp March.

To get started, you need to decide which veggies you want to plant, depending on your personal tastes and growing space. If you live in apartment, a lot of plants can be grown in a couple big pots on a deck or outside your front door.

I usually like to start cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans indoors. Herbs, especially chives and basil, are easy and fun to grow, because they smell DELICIOUS as soon as they sprout. You can dry them and use them throughout the year. Fresh herbs are the best, and you really can taste the difference in your recipes!   mozzarella di bufala con pomodoro e basilico

Then head to your local hardware, discount store or nursery and pick out your seeds. Check the back of your seed packets for the zone hardiness of the plant, and how much time you’ll need to allow if you’re starting indoors, as well as time until harvest. The typical amount of time for indoor growing is 6-8 weeks. Here in Zone 4 we shouldn’t put our plants in the ground until after May 15th, when the danger of a killing frost is USUALLY passed.

I usually start my seeds around St. Patrick’s Day or during the NCAA Final Four. I remember in previous years, sitting on my kitchen floor, with seed starter soil everywhere, listening to a tournament game, while trying to get wet soil out of my grout. That was before I wised up and started using peat pellets.

While some hardier veggies like lettuce and radishes can be sown directly in the ground in early spring, others have to wait until the ground warms up. Tomatoes, for instance, thrive in heat. If the temps are too cold, or the weather too cloudy, their growth can be stunted. Tomatoes are an excellent plant to start indoors.

Then you’ll need a tray that will allow adequate drainage and a clear, vented cover. I recommend investing in a multi-square version like the Jiffy Starter Kit if you’re a newbie. jiffy-greenhouseIt has everything you’ll need, except the seeds, light and water, and will cost approximately $10 or less. Plus the tray can be used again next year.

You can buy the growing medium loose, or in a little mesh-covered peat pellet. Trust me…the peat pellet is the way to go to avoid a mess! You soak them in hot water for about 5 minutes and voilá…they expand to just the right size. It’s pretty cool to watch. Kids will love this, too.

There’s even a little hole in the top of the mesh to place your seeds in. So all you have to worry about is checking the back of your package for seed-planting depth, and how many seeds to plant in each pellet. It can take anywhere from 4 to 14 days for seedlings to emerge.seedling

The three most important words of wisdom I can give you, after years of making every mistake imaginable, are to separate, ventilate, and rotate!

  1. Separate. You’ll typically plant multiple seeds in a peat pod, because all the seeds may not sprout. However, sometimes they will and you’ll need to separate or thin out the young sprouts. If you don’t, once they start to leaf, they’ll crowd each other out, competing for space and nutrients. Your plants won’t thrive, and when it comes time to plant, you’ll have a bunch of tangled, thin, and gangly plants.
  2. Rotate. Placement of your seeds is key. You need a warm, sunny place that gets the most light over the course of the day. Seeds need warmth to germinate. So a window near a heat vent is optimal.  You can buy a small grow light and warming mat on which to place your seed tray for around $30-$40. Although I never have. Remember these investments sound like a lot, but once you have the right equipment, you’ll have it forever. When the seeds have sprouted, you’ll need to rotate the tray at least once a day or more, so that neither side has to lean toward the sun. Optimally you want light coming from directly above, so that your young seedlings will grow straight up and have strong healthy stems. Believe me, I’ve had many years, where I’ve ended up with spindly, sideways tomato plants, that have eventually borne fruit, but it certainly wasn’t easy to put a tomato cage on a horizontal plant.
  3. Ventilate. As I mentioned, seeds to stay covered and warm in the first several weeks, hot and moist like a greenhouse with minimal ventilation. But once they have sprouted, you’ll want to keep the soil moist, but not drowning, and ventilate or you’ll have moldy soil. Once the plants are touching the lid, you can remove the lid completely.

You’ll want to watch the bottom of your mesh peat pods for exposed roots, transplanting them to larger pots filled with regular potting soil until it’s time to put them in the ground. Potting up tomato seedlings © Arena Photo UKAlways refer to the back of your seed packs for more specifics, like when to pinch the first leaves from the stems.

And when you’re ready to put your seeds in the ground, remember, the plants need to be gradually acclimated to the direct sun outdoors, and other elements. So you can take them out for a couple of hours each day. This is called hardening off your plants, and you can read more about the process online.

Starting seeds indoors has been one of the best experiences I’ve had as a novice gardener, and I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, without reading stacks of books, or spending a fortune. The results have been great savings, and the greatest rewards…FRESH VEGGIES and the satisfaction of knowing I grew them myself. Have your own tips or experiences with seed starting? Please share in the comments!

Young plant in a pot ready for planting

-MB

When she’s not blogging for Smart Perks, Melanie is staring glassy-eyed at Pinterest, her Pin It finger splinted from overuse. Besides crafting, gardening, shopping and cupcakes, the loves of her life are her three naughty terrier pups, the smartest and best-looking dogs in the world, and her husband.