Category Archives: Tomatoes

Make the Most of Tomato Time!

by Jan Hersey

posted August 12, 2021 (fertilizer ratio updated on August 23)

Is there a rule about how many times you can look at your tomatoes each day, hoping to catch sight of that first blush of color, some sign—any sign—that you’ll finally be savoring that first Caprese salad or BLT after months of TLC?

After a lifetime of growing tomatoes and vegetables, my variable successes seem to have had more to do with luck than knowledgeable care.

But it was dwindling success with tomatoes that was the tipping point: the soil in one of three growing areas we’d rotated among was pumping out increasingly spindly and yellowed plants; the second had questionable soil health in some areas; and the third was just too small. Though a larger project than neither my garden partner nor I wanted, it was time for a new hoop house: he built the frame, we hoisted on the plastic covering, and I am putting to use new-found knowledge, filling it with 18 lush plants, many with catalog-worthy tomatoes among a jungle of stems.

My transition from haphazard gardener to knowledgeable tomato caregiver didn’t happen without help. The convergence of the need to build healthy soil in the new hoop house, making use of the sunny location of the abandoned tomato locations, and my desire for the “real,” chin-dripping tomatoes of my past was the tipping point I needed, in January, to sign up for an online, self-directed and interactive class, Growing Epic Tomatoes I’ve admittedly gone a bit overboard trying to stick to all the guidance, but so far (can you see my crossed fingers?), it’s paying off in spades.

The class has taught me to truly pay attention to what’s happening to the plants at every stage—including the seeds I started for the first time on March 10!—so the plants and I have, by now, had a relatively long relationship. The class also has pushed me to experiment and then pay attention—to various seed-starting mediums (watch out for coir); amount of sunshine; hoop house, raised bed, grow bags, and sundry pots. Also, pruning and trellising techniques, and soils.

Recently, I stopped by the wonderful garden that’s emerged from the vacant summer beds at Anacortes Middle School. I wanted to check out about a half dozen tomato plants I’d passed along, a donation of some unusual varieties from Southern Exposure Family Farm in Sedro-Woolley. (20+) Southern Exposure Family Farm | Facebook

While well staked and healthy, the donated plants were a bit out of control, with an over-abundance of foliage and some odd pruning choices. The Wednesday gardeners welcomed my offer to prune, something I’ve been assiduous about since taking the class. When a handful of folks gathered seeking guidance, I gave a brief demo and offered to pull together some pointers.

For them . . . and for you, I’m grateful to share some of my now accumulated knowledge, recognizing that there are many ways people have successfully grown tomatoes for centuries.

Determinate or Indeterminate? Tomatoes have two primary growth habits. Determinate varieties grow only to about 3-4 feet high and wide. They can be allowed to grow without removing any suckers and will be supported by one of those short and otherwise mostly useless tomato cages. They also produce most of their fruit at the same time, making them convenient for canning and preserving.

Indeterminate tomato types continue to grow up and out until tempered by pruning, frost, or disease. All tomatoes can take the cold down into the ‘30s; they won’t survive a freeze.

Spacing Look at the growth habit of the varieties you’ve choosen and find a balance among spacing (36 inches is good if you have the room), number of stems allowed to grow, pruning, fertilizing, and watering. The goal, among other things, is to create good air circulation, expose the plant to maximum light, and allow access to careful watering and feeding that avoids getting water on the leaves.

Mulch A substantial mulch beneth each plant holds in moisture and prevents soil-borne pathogens from splashing onto leaves. I’ve had great luck with both small bark chips and arborists’ chips.

Stems or Suckers? Each of those cute little new shoots that pop out overnight from the crotch of a stem and a leaf is called sucker, but it has the capacity to grow into a major stem! It’s up to you to take control. Determine the initial number of stems to grow based on what your spacing, trellising, and feeding options can support. One-to-five stems is a good range to consider. Don’t get greedy, as many suckers will inevitably escape your pruning snips and become space-grabbing stems.

Sun & Shade Tomato plants need as much sunshine as possible, producing fewer fruits with less light and heat. But individual tomatoes prefer being shaded from harsh sun by the plant’s leaves to avoid sun scald. These light brown, sunburned areas don’t ruin the tomato nor any seeds you might want to save, but you’ll want to cut them out for when eating.

Pruning On all my indeterminate plants (remember, don’t prune determinates, such as Roma and Taxi), I’m constantly pinching and pruning out as many of the little suckers as I find; I’ll even sacrifice some 1-2-foot stem wannabes that are crowding the main stems. It can be hard to make the cuts, especially if they’ve got some flowers. Be brave.

Not sure which are suckers? Go to the uppermost growing tip of each stem; that is what should be allowed to continue growing; to maintain a well-behaved plant, pinch or snip out all suckers growing from the stem-leaf intersections below the growing tip. Beware—the growing tip could be an escaped sucker that might be be better thinned out.

In addition to suckers, it’s also prudent to prune off the lowest leaves up to about a foot, particularly if you’re hand watering, so as not to splash soil-borne disease organisms onto the leaves. To aid good air circulation, also prune out some of those coarse, thick-stemmed leaves with no flowers where they’re fighting each other for space.

Disease Alert! One final and very important pruning tip is to immediately prune off any mottled or discolored leaves that appear on the plant; this usually starts at the bottom. Often, this is early blight and the result of soil-borne pathogens splashing onto the lower leaves. Don’t hold back—a plant can continue to ripen its tomatoes with as little as 20% leaf cover. IMPORTANT: To prevent the spread of disease from one plant to another, keep a small bottle of alcohol handy and spritz your clippers and hands before you move on to tend the next plant. All infected leaves go in the garbage, not the compost pile, to prevent spreading the blight or other spores!

A lush Taxi determinate just before it received a severe haircut—early blight had spread far up the plant. Fingers crossed that the 40 or so tomatoes continue to ripen!

Stimulating flowering & fruiting
1) Be prepared to switch up your fertilizers. A high nitrogen fertilizer (the “N” in N-P-K on the label) is great to get the plants growing. Fish emulsion (also blood meal, feather meal, and manures) works well for this, or any fertilizer or amendment with the first NPK number higher than the others.

To flower and fruit, however, tomatoes need increased phosphorous and potassium (the last two numbers on the N-P-K label). Once the plants start flowering, I switched to a fertilizer with higher P and K, like Neptune’s Harvest, which is 2-3-1.
2) Tomato flowers are self pollinating, i.e., the male and female parts needed for fertilization are on the same flower. You can give our winged pollinators a hand by helping to stimulate fertilization by vibrating the flower stems (just as flowers are opening seems best); get your timing right and you’ll see a cloud of pollen. I use an old electric toothbrush to do this, you also can buy a product called a VegiBee, flick the stem cluster with your fingers, or simply tap or shake the support cage to jiggle things around.

If we’re headed for a hot spell, get out there ahead of the high temps and pretend you’re a bee to jump start pollination because high humidity and/or temps 90 degrees and above make the pollen sticky, it doesn’t move around, and fertilization may not occur at that flush of flowers.

Watering Water from the bottom and avoid getting leaves wet—moisture can act like glue to soil- or air-borne pathogens.

Then, whatever you determine is the best watering regime for your plantings, stick to it! Drip irrigation is best if you can manage it. Inconsistent watering is the main cause of blossom end rot (BER). When tomato plants go dry, they can’t take up the phosphorous and potassium essential to flowering and fruiting; adding calcium or eggshells at this point won’t help, it’s the uptake that’s the problem. And, when plants suddenly get a large amount of water (to make up for our absence), they’re more apt to split.

Watering intervals will vary depending on what medium plants are growing in, their exposure to sun, etc. My in-ground, hoop house plants can go 3-4 days between watering; my grow bag tomatoes need water at least every other day, as they’re growing in a lighter, fast-draining medium. I often check moisture levels with an inexpensive (about $15) moisture meter, but then, I’m a detail-oriented Virgo.

Water carefully when a plant’s growth habit, like these Cherokee Purple indeterminates, makes it difficult to keep the bottom leaves pruned off.

Feeding Tomatoes need our help to give us their best show. Feed plants in grow bags and containers every 7-10 days: the relatively small amount of growing medium (I’m using mostly 10-gallon bags) in a container drains quickly and contains little of its own nutrients. However, I feed in-ground plants less often, every 10-14 days, as they have access to soil nutrients and are in slower-draining soil. On days you are feeding, skip the watering.

Harvesting You’ve bought mozzarella, are keeping the basil flourishing, now, beat the critters to your prize fruit for the Caprese salad by picking at what’s called the “breaker stage.” This is when a tomato first starts to “color up.” It will ripen just fine in your house or garage—maybe even faster if you have a tray of tomatoes all giving off ethylene gas. Contrary to expectations, breaker stage tomatoes contain the same amount of flavor as their vine-ripened counterparts. Picking early also gives you more time to choose and use your tomatoes as they ripen instead of suddenly being faced with a basket of ripe tomatoes that need immediate attention.

Regardless of its color (today there’s a rainbow of tomato colors), you’ll know when a tomato is ripe when the flesh gives slightly when pressed. There also can be a slight change in skin color or transparency, but this info is above my pay grade.

Seed saving If you’re into saving seeds for next year’s tomato crop, do so from the first tomatoes to ripen and/or those lowest on the plant. These are the least likely to have been cross pollinated with pollen from another nearby variety.

So, while my classmates from across the country in hotter or sunnier zones are showing off their rainbow-colored trays of heirlooms, I’m watching carefully for those first signs of color on my Black Krims, Cherokee Purples, and San Marzanos!


by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted April 27, 2021

One of the benefits of going through the freezer at the end of the stored food season is finding bits of the high summer harvest preserved in ice. I recently spent a day buying tomato plants at the various greenhouse sales in the Valley, and then carefully putting them in a protected spot to harden off. Later that evening I found two frozen containers, one of ratatouille prepared last year and the other an all-purpose blend of puréed roma and beefsteak tomatoes. Once the eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes were bubbling on the stove, it felt like a breath of August warmth, a fortuitous reminder and hopefully a foretaste of what this year’s starts will also become in a few month’s time. It was as if all the heady, descriptive prose of the seed catalogs was being brought to life, even before this year’s plants were in the ground. Home-grown tomatoes do that to gardeners.

30 Organic Tomato CUORE DI BUE Oxheart Coeur de Boeuf ...

This year I’m planting a mix of modern and heirloom tomato varieties; some are standards I grow each year and others I am trying out, looking for new tastes as well as successful plants. (Note: all my tomatoes and peppers are grown in a large hoop house for added heat.) The one tomato I was particularly searching for was the Italian heirloom, Cuore Di Bue (Oxheart), which I had grown once before, but have been unable to find for several years. A very large, slightly orange tomato shaped like a pouch with a gathered top, it is listed as a sauce type. I find it also delicious when served sliced, interleaved with thick slivers of fresh mozzarella, then drizzled with olive oil and topped with sprigs of basil. Aromatic Italy on an antipasto platter.

On my search I also found another heirloom beefsteak tomato, Chianti Rose (perhaps also Italian?), to try out and compare to the Cuore Di Bue. It will be my own, homegrown tomato-tasting research project.

Heirlooms are less disease-resistant and usually don’t produce as abundantly as modern types, so I also plant the standard Big Beef, which reliably produces lots of large fruit each year in our relatively cool growing season. In any case, I look forward to a summer of large, tasty slicers.

Buy Grape Tomato Seeds

My favorite red cherry tomato is the grape type that grows its fruit on a multi-stemmed cluster, as if it were a vegetable version of a phasmid (an order of insects, like a walking stick, disguised as a botanical form). I have a mature arbor of Thompson Seedless grapes growing next to my tomato house, so the resemblance between the grape bunches and the grape tomatoes, particularly when they are both immature and green, is striking. Although ultimately the deception never fools the hungry birds that flock to the arbor when the greenish-yellow grapes are just starting to ripen, while inside the hoop house the grape tomato plants are covered with red clusters.

I’ve grown a German grape type tomato in the past, but this year I’m trying a new variety, Juliet. Grape cherry tomatoes have a slightly thicker skin that resists bursting when very ripe. Standard red cherry varieties such as Sweet 100 often crack open and start to mold if left too long on the vine, particularly if over-watered. In contrast, the grape types maintain their shape and flavor deep into the fall season.

For a round cherry tomato I rely on Sungold, always a welcome bright spot of yellow, ripening very early, usually before the first of the standard-sized tomatoes.

San Marzano Heirloom Tomato Seeds | Terroir Seeds

For pear-shaped sauce tomatoes I rely on the San Marzanos as well as Granadero, a modern roma type that is prolific. This year I’m also trying out Opalka, a 6-inch long, banana-shaped variety that resembles the red pepper Italian Thunderblot, a sweet type for roasting that I always plant. For another trial, I’m growing both the classic heirloom, Brandywine, as well as a modern hybrid, Croatian Brandywine, which is designed to be more productive, while maintaining the traditional deep flavor. Finally, I’m experimenting with the Russian variety Moskvich, a very early indeterminate, which I hope will do better and hold up longer than the usual Northwest standard Early Girl.

And of course I’ll also add a few of Joe’s Best, an unspecified, rebranded tomato variety from the nursery grower in Bellingham, and one that always lives up to its name. If you want to claim immortality, having a superior tomato named after you is a sure way of entering the home gardener’s idea of Heaven.

Harvest Season

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted September 14, 2020


Harvest Season

During the high levels of smoke locally from all the forest fires on both sides of the state, I’ve been spending my extended time indoors processing the garden harvest.

To date I’ve made three kinds of sauerkraut: first, a plain or ‘Naked Kraut,’ as the fermenting book labels it, just green cabbage and sea salt; second, a Middle Eastern style kraut made with Za’atar, an spice blend that includes sumac, a tart lemon-flavored herb; and third, Curtido, a Latin American style kraut with carrots, onions, garlic, oregano, cumin, and dried chiles. So far, while fermenting in the cool pantry, the krauts have withstood the recent high temperatures that might spoil them. The key is to check the large gallon jars everyday, tamping down the cabbage back into the brine, to vent all the bubbling.

And of course tasting a bit each time to see how close it is to being done.

Next up to try will be a German Blaukraut made with red cabbage, tart apples and caraway seeds. After each kraut is sufficiently fermented, between 7 to 14 days, it is ladled into quart jars, topped with fresh grape leaves, the lid is tightened, and the jar can be stored in a fridge for up to a year. When the garden gives you lots of cabbage, make sauerkraut.

The last of the pickling and Persian cucumbers have been put in salt brine to ferment for 12 days, along with garlic cloves, dried cayenne chilies, bay leaves, and both mustard and dill seeds. A grape leaf goes on top to keep the cukes submerged in the brine. Hopefully a New York style deli sour pickle will develop. Again, daily monitoring is needed to clean off any scum on top and to add fresh brine as needed. After fermenting is done, the pickles can be stored in the fridge for a year, all the while maintaining their probiotic levels since they were not heat processed. Old style fermentation is now back in style as the latest in diet health.

Finally, the tomatoes all got very ripe due to the hot winds that initially brought in the forest fire smoke. To deal with the full flats of tomatoes, I used a high speed food processor to pulp the cored tomatoes and I froze the pulp in quart containers. I combined all the tomato types into one all-purpose puréed sauce: the Early Girls and the Big Beefs, the Romas and San Marzanos, and the soft heirlooms such as Mortgage Lifter and Old German Mennonite. The regular table tomatoes supply lots of juice, the Italian varieties add thick flesh, and the heirlooms provide sweetener and flavor. Very similar to mixing varieties of apples to make a good, balanced fresh cider.


Return of the Aphids

After the rainfall in late August the aphids returned to their favorite site, the brassicas. White, translucent aphids reappeared hidden inside the top buds of the Brussels Sprouts, so this time I broke off the bud tip and doused the area with a mild detergent soap spray. I also removed some bottom sprouts lower down that had turned black or were beginning to open up into small off-shoots, and gave the entire lower stem area a squirt of soap to deter any other aphid colonies. In contrast, black aphids appeared on the fall cabbages, collards and broccoli starts that were just taking off. Again, a dose of soap spray will hopefully keep these aphids in check. There’s always an insect waiting to dine on the garden before you get to eat.


Smoke in the Air

I was interested in the effect of the extended days of smoky air on the garden plants. The newly sprouted fall greens, turnips, and miner’s lettuce seemed unaffected but still needed their daily watering to keep from drying out. In the hoop house, with an outside temperature staying around 60F degrees most of the day, the ambient solar radiation still managed to raise the interior temperature to 79F degrees with the sides closed. The heat will help ripen the last of the peppers: the Italian Red Roasters, the Early Jalapeños, the Padrones and Anchos, as well as the small but potent Cherry Bombs. Not to forget the North Stars, the regular green peppers that if given the chance will eventually turn red on the stem.

Fall and Winter Greens, and Tomato Harvests

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted August 31, 2020

Fall and Winter Greens

The arrival of cooler weather means it’s time to plant hardy greens that will mature during the fall and then last through all but the coldest winter weather. In a new raised bed, positioned to catch the low angle of winter sun, I planted four greens I’ve had success with in the past: Miner’s Lettuce, also known as Claytonia or Winter Purslane; Rosette Bok Choy, a hardy Tatsoi variety; Broccoli Raab, also called Rapini or broccoletti; and Mizuna Mustard, a bushy Japanese type. I’m also trying out a new green, Chinese Kale, or Kailaan, that looks like a leafier version of the Broccoli Raab.

Note: add only a minimum of nitrogen to the soil for cold weather greens, to avoid over-production of soft leafy tissue that freezes too easily. I grew peas earlier this year on the soil of the new greens bed, so there should be adequate nitrogen from the root nodes of the legume. I always do work in a bit of kelp meal, which seems to help all plants resist cold.

The Miner’s Lettuce, in spite of its delicate floral look, stands up well all winter and will readily go to seed in the spring. The round, leafy cups have a soft succulent feel in contrast to the stiff fronds of the Lacinato Kale, a hardy green that’s already well-established in other areas of the garden. The Rosette Bok Choy, which grows low to the soil surface and stays green even in light snow, is known as Spoon Choy, since the leaves resemble little spoons. The Broccoli Raab requires the protection of a small hoop house covered with floating row cover, but it will keep offering small buds even during hard cold snaps that leave frozen droplets on its leaves. I’m hoping the Kailaan Kale will have the same hardiness as the Raab, but offering a slightly different texture. There’s always something new to try when you’re cruising the seed racks or going through seed catalogs. And the pictures on the packets always look so perfect.

A second bed will include Purple Top White Globe Turnips, mostly for the greens rather than the roots. Last year I did Tokyo Cross Turnips, a winter variety grown only for the greens. The Tokyo roots eventually grew to the size of a soccer balls, half submerged in the soil, but they kept offering shoots and buds all winter. The key is to keep snipping off the sprigs before they get too long or go to flower in the early spring. If the roots of the Purple Top Turnip do stay small and edible this year, I like them cut into small chunks with the lower part of the stems still attached, then pan-steamed with a little butter and a touch of either soy and/or hot sauce.

I will also put in a fall crop of Purple Kohlrabi, with the unique bulbs that look like slightly flattened tennis balls floating a few inches off the ground. Kohlrabi is good as an appetizer, sliced very thin and then marinated for a short time in rice vinegar mixed with a little water. Plus, there will be a few Red Giant Mustard plants for a some heat during the chill of winter.

Note: One advantage of growing brassicas in the fall is you avoid the cabbage root fly maggots, which emerge in the spring.

Tomato Harvest

Tomatoes are in full production mode now. This year I tried some heirloom varieties for the first time, including Pink Brandywine, Old German/Mennonite, Purple Cherokee, and Mortgage Lifter. As expected, I found them more problematic than the modern varieties, with much skin cracking, some blossom end rot, and less production overall.

Mortgage Lifter, a name right out of the Great Depression, was the most successful, with deeply ribbed, large pinkish red fruit that held well on the vine. The Mennonite, also very large, was deep yellow, with a star of bright red color at the blossom end, and very soft, sweet flesh. The Brandywine and Purple Cherokee produced a only a small number of tomatoes, many of which got too soft before I realized they should have been picked a bit earlier.

All the other tomatoes I grew were varieties that do well locally: Roma and Granadero sauce tomatoes; two beefsteak varieties, Jo’s Best and Big Beef; two determinates, Early Girl and Siletz; as well Sungold and Sweet Million cherry tomatoes. The modern, standard-size types of course produce large, relatively disease-free crops that ripen well on the vine, have thicker skins that resist damage, and denser flesh that’s not as delicate or sugary as the heirlooms. But they are sweet enough for fresh eating, and work well for home freezing or canning. Reliability is a good trade-off when you intend to preserve your garden crop for the winter. And a few heirlooms, mixed in with the large batches of modern tomatoes being processed, add just the needed touch of old-fashioned sweetness and flavor.

Fall Starts, and Sauerkraut Time!

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted August 10, 2020


Fall Starts

Mid-August is the time to get long-standing hardy winter transplants into the ground. I have late cabbage and broccoli in, as well as collards, along with a last planting of leeks, plus a few clumps of green onions/scallions. The challenge has been keeping them all protected from the intense sun we’ve had the past few weeks. I cover the fragile starts with large black plastic pots for several days or more, and then gradually expose them to an hour or so of early morning sun each day. I also make sure to water them daily to help them maintain turgor, or internal water pressure, which keeps them upright. When they’re finally rooted a bit, I shield them with the pot placed on the southern side to provide shade, and give them a grid of sun and shade overhead using leftover plastic garden nursery trays that have perforated bottoms for drainage. If it gets really hot, I lay strips of cardboard on top of the trays, to provide complete shade, but with a little light still coming in from the sides to keep a minimum of photosynthesis going.

Sometimes it takes a week or more before the plants stop wilting on first exposure to the direct sun. These are cool weather transplants that are being stressed by having to establish root systems in hot weather; they need the sun protection. Once established, they’ll be fine, but regular watering will be needed until fall. With autumn rains coming later and later each year, make sure they don’t dry out. Drought conditions and warm spells in September may cause them to go to seed prematurely instead of waiting for next spring. You want them to be mature by the end of fall so they’ll hold on through the winter, growing slowly and supplying  fresh green produce through the dark months.

Brine and Sauerkraut Time

Midsummer is also pickling season. I’ve been doing short-term salt brine cucumber pickles for several weeks, sometimes with fresh grape leaves laid on top, to keep all the spices from floating up to the surface. Recently I had to remove most of an Early Girl tomato plant that was showing signs of stem disease, so I had an unexpected box of green tomatoes to deal with before I’d even harvested a fully ripe tomato.

I used a standard N.Y. Deli dill pickle recipe for the halved tomatoes, along with garlic, spices, chili peppers, and for a new, extra kick, added horseradish leaves. After sitting in a cool corner next to the freezer for a few days, and once they taste pickled enough, the jar will go into the cold storage fridge. Surprisingly, I got most of the box of green tomatoes packed into a one gallon jar. It will bring back memories of the large jars of green tomatoes on display in the front windows of classic New York delicatessens.

With a crop of early green cabbage heading up, it’s also sauerkraut time. Not having made kraut in recent years, I started off with a plain version, just using sea salt, for the first gallon. The second gallon included the Middle Eastern herb sumac and a Jordanian green za’atar spice mix, for a Mediterranean take on kraut. With the third gallon, I’m trying Curtido, a South American salted cabbage recipe that includes sliced carrots, shredded garlic, chili peppers, and oregano. Lots of massaging of all that chopped cabbage to generate enough brine. Once the kraut is ready, it will join the pickles in the fridge set up for extended storage.

With all those cucumbers, tomatoes and cabbages bubbling away in their brine, the pantry feels like an indoor garden growing in the dark.

Plan now for a Fall-Winter garden

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted July 5, 2020


Pivot Point

Having just passed the summer solstice, the garden is at its seasonal pivot point. Even as summer begins, hopefully with some good sunny weather to end the extended rains, the days are getting slightly shorter. It’s time to start planning for fall and winter crops. Summer harvests will start to pile up, the weather will assuredly turn dry and hot, and watering will become the daily issue. But amidst all the garden rush, it pays to start planning now where the following season’s plantings will go.

The first winter crop I think of is leeks. Since this year’s onions have been hindered by the rains, developing mold on the bulbs, or generally not thriving, I turn to leeks, the reliable allium. Being an extended stem rather than a terminal bulb, they resist rot in the ground, and hold up all winter long against the cold and the wet. I already have an early, summer/fall leek crop going, but I need to put in a second wave of leeks that will mature in the fall and continue to be harvested through the winter months. No need for drying and storage. The leeks are always in the ground, ready for use, whatever the weather.

The outer leek sheaths will get eventually soft and mushy by mid-winter, but with a simple stripping, the clean white inner core is ready for the pot. The key is the hardy root system that keeps growing slowly all winter. When you dig up a hefty leek in February, a large bolus of soil comes out as well, held onto by the extensive white roots. To form that solid foundation get them in the ground now so they can slowly develop all summer and into the fall. The reward will come in the short days of winter.


Other Fall Plantings

The nursery starts for fall plantings began showing up a few weeks ago, so seek them out before they disappear in this year of increased demand for garden supplies. Look for late varieties of cabbage, such as January King, as well as hardy collards. Seek out fall and winter varieties of broccoli and cauliflower, as well as any of the hardy kales. There is also the hardy Tatsoi mustard, the standard Winter Bloomsdale spinach, plus Daikon and Black Spanish winter radishes. Lots to choose from if you look. Not to forget the perennial garlic chives, which will stay green if you keep it protected during cold spells.

Last winter I had fresh turnip greens lasting all the way into spring from a fall-sown Tokyo Cross type designed to produce leafy tops, rather than roots. The large woody root, eventually rising above ground like a small dome, kept sending up fresh sprouts deep into spring, trying to go to seed. As long as I kept snacking on the shoots and buds, it kept sending up new growth. At the end, the dome was a hollow shell that came easily out of the soil, but it had completed its mission, like some long-lived interplanetary voyager with little leafy antennas.


Summer Duties

At this point in the season, things have settled into a regular pattern:

watering, weeding, and harvesting. In the hoop house, the cherry tomato plants have grown to the ceiling and will need to be trimmed; the regular tomatoes have filled out their cages and should start setting more fruit in the warm weather. Now is the time to start thinning out the suckers and removing central foliage to allow better air circulation.

The peppers are starting to form and ripen, along with the first cucumbers and eggplants. Each day I help the curlicued tendrils of the cucumber vines grab onto the trellis to help support the coming weight of the mature cukes. Outside, the pole beans are climbing their trellis, and there again I make sure the emerging vines at the ground level latch onto the nearest vertical support. Vegetable kindergarten, helping little hands grab onto things.


Bee Swarm Update

With the loss of the queen and some of the bees, I thought the hive had failed, since I hadn’t seen any bees in flight for days on end during the recent cold and wet weather. After a follow-up inspection, our keeper said all was ok. The newly installed queen had been busy making new brood to fill out combs, with the workers staying at home, relying on bottled sugar water. On the first sunny day two weeks later the restored bees were out again, finding the waiting winter squash and zucchini blossoms. Now that the first 6-inch zucchinis have appeared, it’s truly summer.


A New Backyard Pest; and much more

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 8, 2020

A new backyard pest

I spent several days this week dealing with an infestation of what looked like tiny, black, leaf-eating caterpillars that swarmed over a mature stand of highbush cranberry shrubs and also onto one nearby snowball bush. The leaves were skeletonized, leaving the stems and veins intact, by what resembled tiny leeches with legs, crawling up the main trunks to get to the foliage. The only solution was to cut down the tall shrubs completely and take them to the burn pile for immediate incineration. I am hoping I got rid of enough of the pests before they invade a nearby prized Japanese maple or a Korean dogwood that is in full bloom.

The soft cranberry shrub leaves were more susceptible than the thicker leaves on an adjacent shiny laurel, which was also covered by what looked like sticky frass, the technical term for insect droppings. So the laurel went as well, just to be safe. The recent heavy rains and lush undergrowth may have been part of the cause, but it is the first time I have seen such an invasion on mature shrubs that I have been growing and pruning for several decades. It certainly felt like an outbreak that had to be dealt with firmly. I will be on the lookout for further signs and will try to identify the critters specifically.


Tomato pollination

As the tomatoes climb up their supports and start to flower, it is important to remember that in order to set fruit the plants need to be kept above 50F degrees at night. When closing up the hoop house in the evening to maintain the heat, I give the tomato cages a quick shake to get the pollen out into into the air. Hopefully the small green buttons of nascent tomatoes will soon start to appear. The cherry tomatoes always come first, given their small size, leading the way for the larger standard varieties.


Vegetable perennials: artichokes and asparagus

I grow a bed of the standard Green Globe artichokes, which are just coming on. They are a welcome treat, but somewhat bland-tasting, and must be picked before they get too tough. I do have one bush of purple artichokes, Violetta de Provence, an Italian variety that produces smaller chokes, but with a much more delicate flavor. When picked early, you can eat almost the entire bud. Gourmet thistles.

The other garden perennial is the bed of asparagus, which is just reaching maturity in its third season. It has been worth the wait. Now one can pick a high percentage of the stalks, which are decidedly sweet when eaten straight from the garden. A key to a sustained harvest is to keep the bed well watered as the roots send up the shoots.



The first rush of ripe broccoli is also here, having recently emerged from their floating row cover. I blanch the flowerets for a few minutes just until they turn bright green, then quickly chill in cold water. I like them as an appetizer dipped into a sauce of mayonnaise mixed with a bit of dry mustard and a spritz of lemon juice. I have also found that the plain stems can be eaten as well if you cut them into small slices or julienned strips and blanch them a bit longer than the tops before chilling. If the stem is particularly tough, use a vegetable peeler to get rid of the thick skin. Eat the whole vegetable.

Late Spring in the Garden

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 1, 2020


First Brassicas

The early spring plantings of brassicas finally emerged this week from their protective cocoon of floating row cover, revealing small heads of broccoli that will be cutting size soon, as well as cabbages just starting to head up. It’s always a pleasure to free up the maturing plants straining against the white cloth, having successfully avoided any root maggot fly infestation, and only a few snails hiding out on the lower leaves. It is also a reminder that the late spring/early summer crop of brassica starts will need to go in soon. The cycle of year-round cole plants keeps turning.


I usually wait until June 1st to plant corn, allowing the soil to heat up to 60F degrees. Too often early sowings succumb to seed rot and poor germination. This year I jumped the gun a bit during the sunny week after Memorial Day and got my corn planted. Hopefully the day of rain that came soon after will be just enough to start the seed growing, but not too much to cause a problem.

Corn is always a favorite crop, if you have the space to grow it, as well as a reliable supply of water. Corn plants require consistent watering for their tall stalks, large leaves and the eventual ears. I enjoy the sound of the rustling leaves in the wind, and am always amazed at the process of the tassels shedding pollen down to fertilize the delicate hairs that lead to each individual kernel.
With the recent pattern of warmer summers, sweet corn has become more reliable to grow in the Northwest garden. I plant three varieties, a standard yellow such as Bodacious, a bi-color called Peach & Cream, and my favorite, a long-season white such as Silver King.
Corn is one of the easiest vegetables to process for freezing. I blanch the ears for several minutes in boiling water, quickly chill in cold water to stop the cooking, and then slice off the kernels with a sharp knife. To preserve the real sweetness of fresh corn, use the back of the knife blade to scrape down all the milky juice from the cob and mix it in with the cut kernels. When defrosted and cooked for just a few minutes you will have the taste of fresh corn, almost as good as ears of corn fresh picked from the garden.

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cukes

In the hoop house, tomato plants are leafing out vigorously and climbing up the rungs of the cages and a few flowers are appearing. The important thing is to trim off any lower leaf stems touching the soil, to avoid fungus infections. Consistent watering is required to promote steady growth as well as to avoid leaf curling, which can be a sign of either too much or too little water. To complicate matters, individual varieties may show different levels of water tolerance. Out of my 20 tomato plants, only one variety, a Sweet Million cherry tomato, has signs of leaf curl but still looks healthy, so I eased up on the water a bit. Gardening is always a mix of monitoring and adjusting.

Some of my peppers, bought early on from one source, were lagging behind others purchased later, so I dosed the smaller plants one time with liquid fish fertilizer, 2 tbsp. per gallon of water, to green them up a bit. I also pinched back all the peppers after they were planted, removing the first solo top buds in order to encourage branching and a greater number of secondary buds.

The cucumbers are finding their way onto their wire trellis, from the early Marketmore slicers, to the later planted Persians just starting appear, as well as a few pickling cuke starts just added to round out the collection. At some point in the summer there will be a first salad featuring homegrown cukes, tomatoes, and peppers to go with all the fresh lettuce that has been growing outside the hoop house.

More about Trenching-in Tomatoes

By Jan Hersey

Regarding Peter’s TWIG post on planting tomatoes, here’s what I did with tomatillos (same technique for tomatoes).

Remove lower leaves from tomato plant.

Dig about a 14-in trench, 6-8” deep on the end where root ball will go, sloping the trench up to original soil level at opposite (stem/leaf) end. Place tom as shown below, gently bending up leaf end, supporting it with and securing it to a small stick.

Cover root ball and stem with soil, then create a moat around the former trench. Trim off more leaves if needed. Ultimately, you’ll want a foot of leafless stem (helps prevent getting water on leaves) before allowing plant to branch into 1-3 stems).

Weight down an empty gallon plastic pot with some stones and place it on the soil between the root ball and growing stem. Throughout the season, water into the pot, which will slowly release the water into the trench.

Growing Tomatoes 🍅

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 4, 2020
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I plant a mix of cherry tomatoes, beefsteak types for slicing, Italian sauce tomatoes for freezing, and always a few heirlooms to try out for intense flavor or unique coloration. Once the soil has warmed to a toasty 60F inside the hoop house, usually by the end of the first week in May, it’s time to transplant. This year I have an improved metal soil thermometer that looks just like a large meat thermometer from the kitchen, but geared, of course, for much lower temperatures. Well worth the expense to know exactly when the ground is warm enough for heat-loving plants. I put a large pot or a box over all new transplants to shield them for a day or two to reduce shock, especially on the sunny days that have been more prevalent the past few years.

Growing tomatoes involves some form of staking, wire cages, or a vertical string assembly. When I was a kid back in the hot and humid East Coast, we just let the vines spread out on the ground, with the suckers sprouting laterally in all directions over a wide area, just like a pumpkin patch. With smaller gardens, and tomatoes inside greenhouses or hoop houses in the Northwest, growing them vertically saves space. A support system also helps prevent diseases, such as the blights that come from foliage contact with soil, and of course elevates the clusters of fruit, making them easy to pick.

The big issue is pruning: removing suckers on a regular basis. Otherwise you end up with a tangled mass of too many stems, too much overlapping foliage, and smaller, less numerous fruits. For me, the best advice comes from local NW Garden maven Cisco Morris: select 3-4 main stems and then let them rip. Prune out any additional long skinny stems that start creeping up from the base.

Most importantly, make sure the first set of stems is 4-6 inches above the ground to avoid contamination. Then, as the plant bushes out, trim off any lower branches of leaves that start to touch the ground. No leaf contact is the order of the day, to prevent disease.

As the bushes fill out, it’s also vital to thin the crowded upper areas of leaves for better air circulation and to allow sunlight to penetrate into the central area of the plant to ripen fruit. Be vigilant with your pruning. Remember that this is a rambling, tropical ground vine being reoriented to growing on a vertical support.

I prefer the tall conical tomato cages that allow the branches to drape over the hoops. I tie up a series of cages in a conjoined row so that the bed becomes one long connected tomato hedge. To keep the heavy clusters of ripening tomatoes from breaking their fragile branches, I run lengths of rope along the sides, connected to the wire cages, to hold them up. A bit untidy looking, but I think of it as a seasonal espalier.

A tomato orchard.