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I really don’t think too many of us have trouble using up tomatoes, but, by this point in the season, I am looking for some different ways to eat them, just to spice things up a bit (whereas in July, I have them with just salt and pepper for every meal of the day). These aren’t really recipes, so much as formulas, so play around with the flavors and ingredients based on what you have laying around and on what sounds good to you.

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Tomato-Cucumber Salad
A Sara Original

Ingredients:

A cup or two of cherry tomatoes, halved
Small red onion, diced
2-3 small cucumbers, diced
Handful of fresh basil or mint or oregano (we have all three in the garden, so I just pick on based on what sounds good, but really any fresh herb would be delicious), sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1-2 tbsp olive oil
Splash of red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
Salt and pepper

Directions:

Throw all of the ingredients in a bowl and stir, barely.

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Heirloom Caprese Salad

A Sara Original (stolen from centuries of Italians)

Ingredients:

1 heirloom tomato, sliced
1 small red onion, sliced
1/4 cup feta (or fresh buffalo mozzarella for the more traditionalists)
Small handful of fresh basil
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

Directions:

Assemble the tomatoes on a plate, followed by the onions, topped off with the cheese and basil. Dress with the oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper.

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Corn Salad
A Sara Original

Ingredients:

4 ears sweet corn, cooked and shucked (grilling the corn gives an even tastier, smokier flavor if you have time)
1 small red onion, diced
1 avocado, cut into chunks
1 jalapeno, diced (take out seeds for less spicy, leave them in for more heat)
Juice of one lime
1 tomato, diced
1 small bell pepper, diced
1 cup cilantro, chopped (or more, depending on your taste)
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper

Directions:

Assemble all of the ingredients in a large bowl and stir carefully. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, and jalapeno if necessary.

Now I’m hungry, so I think I’ll head out to the garden and see what I can scrounge up!

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Along with the garden renovation, we also did some research on tomato staking to see if we should be using a better system. After lots of research, we settled on some more substantial tomato cages, rather than the many other great options out there. Traditional tomato cages (like these) are a little flimsy and too short, so our tomatoes always end up toppling over or not reaching their potential.

I settled on these directions to get me started, but I bought about 30 yards of four-foot tall fencing instead of concrete mesh. It was substantially less expensive, but still sturdy. I did fourteen cages in a nap time one afternoon (about an hour and a half) from start to finish, so these were much easier than I was anticipating.

  1. I would highly recommend wearing sun/safety glasses and work gloves. I didn’t wear glasses at first, and the sharp wire edges popped back and almost hit me in the face. I quickly resorted to grabbing some very fashionable safety glasses!
  2. Find something long and heavy-ish to use to hold down one end of the fencing as you un-roll it. I had a scrap 2×4 that was the perfect size.image4
  3. Unroll the fencing, placing your heavy object on one end. I counted out about 18-24 sections. The sections in my roll of fencing were a little over an inch, so it made my finished tomato cages about a foot+ in diameter. I cut them in a random assortment of sizes, so that I could nest them in the off-season (if they were all the same size, they wouldn’t nest). Use a wire cutter to cut at your desired length. You’ll want to cut close to the end of your section, so that you only have loose wire on one side versus both sides (this will make more sense once you’re actually doing it – I promise!).image7
  4. After you make the cuts, remove your object holding down the other end and bring the two ends together to form a rough circle. Bend the loose wire ends around the opposite side of your cage to hold them together. I made a little bit of a curly-cue with the sharp end pointing back in the direction of the wire in hopes of avoiding getting caught on it.image6
  5. Repeat.

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We bought some four-foot rebar stakes that we put in the garden and then affixed the cages to the rebar stakes to keep them sturdy. Some people cut off the wire along the bottom to create stakes to put into the ground, but we wanted the cages as tall as possible, and I think the rebar is sturdier. Here’s the finished product in the garden:

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I’ll write up a full report at the end of the season, of course!

 

Our garden, despite the drought, is really coming into full swing these days. With Maeve’s arrival, we were a little late getting things planted, which is why we’re just now getting tomatoes and cucumbers. Our squashes haven’t done so well. I think because the bees got too hot to pollinate, and I can’t blame them.

I spent a few hours last night pruning the tomatoes in hopes of getting them ready for their last few weeks of big production. Check out this post from last summer for some easy pruning tips. I also came across this post, which I thought explained pruning well. I think I might try her method for staking next year.

Like most gardeners, the end of January brings another Christmas for me: the arrival of the seed catalogs. I have my favorites: Baker Creek, Pinetree, Seed Savers. But I don’t usually order from any of those gorgeous, drool-worthy catalogs anymore. I would rather support the grower in our backyard: Nature’s Crossroads. Not only do I feel better about spending money at Nature’s Crossroads, but the plants I’ve started from their seeds thrive in our backyard garden unlike seeds that we buy elsewhere. Nature’s Crossroads prides itself on providing Midwest gardeners with varieties particularly suited to our soil and climate. Buying from Nature’s Crossroads takes much of the guesswork out of seed buying. With those catalogs, I would get sucked into the beautifully-worded descriptions for varieties that common sense told me would not do well here in Indiana, but I can go crazy picking out seeds from Nature’s Crossroads because they have already done the research and hard work that goes into finding varieties well-suited to my Midwest backyard.

We’re still laying out our garden for next year, but here’s what I have in my shopping cart so far:

  • Trusty tomato. I grew these last year, and they definitely lived up to their name.
  • Red striped furry hog tomato. With a name like that, I really can’t be expected to resist!
  • Toma verde tomatillo. Tomatillos and I just don’t mix. I tried these last year, but after an incident with the dog, toddler and the seed tray, they never really had a chance. Fingers crossed for better luck this year!
  • Ragged jack kale. They used to call this Red Russian kale, and I’ve always had great luck with it, both in the spring and fall.
  • California Wonder pepper. I grew these last year and loved them. We can’t really grow too many peppers at our house.
  • Marketmore 76 cucs: I’m always on the lookout for a new cuc to try because we eat them like candy around here. I’m terrible about trellising them, so this looks like a good one for me.
  • Hungarian hot wax: I’m turning our pots on our front porch over to food this year, and I think these would make a pretty – and tasty – addition.

Best of all, Nature’s Crossroads donates to Westfield’s Plant a Row, as well as to many other local gardening-related organizations. That makes me feel even better about my tendency to over-do-it when it comes to seed buying time.

What are you planning on growing this year?!

Last week at the farmer’s market, I talked a farmer into selling me thirty pounds of “seconds” tomatoes. Seconds are tomatoes that the farmer can’t sell for full price because of imperfections of some sort, so they are often willing to sell them at a discount so they at least get something for them, if not full price. Seconds are a win-win for me and the farmer. This time of the year is the perfect time to be asking about seconds because there is typically a gluttony of tomatoes at the markets.

I only have a ceramic stove top at home, which you aren’t supposed to use for canning, so I typically can at my parent’s house or at a friend’s house. I needed to process those 30 pounds of toms in a hurry though, so I decided to go the freezer route instead. In an afternoon, I made ten quarts of marinara sauce, about eight quarts of vegetable soup and at least a gallon of tomato puree to be used in soups and sauces in the Fall and Winter. I don’t know what I love more about gardening/local produce: the taste of it fresh in the summer months or the taste of it in the middle of January when fresh local produce is virtually non-existent. Either way is delicious.

Here’s my recipe for “garbage” vegetable soup. It changes often based on what I have on hand, so feel free to play around with the ingredients based on what you have laying around.

Garbage Vegetable Soup
A Sara Original

Rough List of Ingredients
10 pounds of tomatoes
5-6 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
1 large onion, diced
5-6 carrots, roughly chopped
1 pound green beans, trimmed
4-6 ears of fresh sweet corn, shaved from the cobs
1-2 cups potatoes, cubed
2 cups beans, cooked (I used kidney beans for this batch)
3 tbsp olive oil
3-6 garlic cloves, minced (depending on how much you like garlic)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. I have a VitaMix, which might just be our best purchase ever. I just clean up the tomatoes of any bad spots, remove the cores, and plop them in the Vita Mix. It pulverizes those tomatoes until all that is left is tomato puree: no cold water baths, skin peeling, seed dumping required. Depending on what I’m making, I’ll put this mixture through a cheesecloth to drain off more of the water, but I was in a hurry on this particular day, so I skipped that step. If you don’t have a VitaMix, follow steps 3 – 7 from this helpful site to process the tomatoes.
  2. After you’ve processed the tomatoes in whatever way you choose, saute the onions, celery and carrots in the olive oil for a few minutes, just until the onions begin to turn translucent, then add the garlic and spices and cook just until you begin to smell the aroma of the garlic and spices.
  3. Add your tomato mixture to the onions and spices, and then add the remaining ingredients. Bring the soup to a boil, and then simmer at a low boil for 20-30 minutes. Test the carrots and potatoes for done-ness before serving.
  4. Like anything that I describe as “garbage,” this soup is ripe for modifications based on what you have on hand. I sometimes add quinoa or barley and change up the vegetables based on what’s in the fridge.

I’m hoping to get a few more rounds of 50+ pounds of seconds in before the end of the season.

This is what I picked from our garden this morning…what are you enjoying from your garden these days?

Grant, Jasper and I spent the morning cleaning up the garden and spreading some of our cooked compost (that’s what I call it when it’s all finished breaking down and ready to be used). I tried to take a few pictures, but it’s so humid outside that they all turned out pretty hazy. I’ll refrain from any more comments about the weather because I feel like that’s about the only conversation I’ve had with people over the last week.

While the boys spread/threw the compost, I worked on weeding and pruning. When I first started gardening, I thought that you just planted seeds, weeded a bit and watered throughout the season and then harvested all the fruits and veggies as they were ready. I didn’t think I was needed much in between the planting and the harvesting. I really gave little thought to “feeding” the plants (which we do with our compost and with worm casings from our worm bins) and even less thought to pruning the plants to help them be more productive. Then at some point, I watched someone pinching off the suckers from their tomato plants and realized that I still had (have) a ton to learn.

I’ve found over time that pruning my plants seems to produce more tomatoes and for a longer period of time. But I still have a hard time pruning back my tomato plants. They look so leggy and sad after I’ve finished pruning them, and I just feel like I’m tossing away all of that work the plants have put into producing all of those stems and leaves. I found a helpful video that explains the pruning technique and benefits that I thought some of you other gardeners out there might find useful:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A few of my novice pruning tips:

  • Start “pinching off” the suckers (the stems that grow between the “y” of the larger stems of the plant) when the plants get to be about 12-18 inches tall. Continue pruning throughout the rest of the season to keep the plant from wasting energy on stems and leaves instead of fruit production.
  • Pruning is an ongoing task and one that you must keep on top of in order for it to work properly. If you prune too much too late in the season, the plant will go into shock (speaking from experience here) and likely won’t recover.
  • I just use my thumb and forefinger for pinching off the suckers, but I like to use a pair of scissors that I’ve designated for the garden for pruning the larger stems because I’m less likely to cause splits and other damage to the plant.
What else do you better gardeners out there do that I haven’t even figured out yet?!

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