Garden Tour/Canning Crushed Tomatoes

Last night I had the pleasure of hosting a large group of women for a tour around our farm. These ladies do good work - helping other women start businesses, helping young girls go to college if they wish, and providing funds for women looking for a new start in life. It was an honor to have them here. Very few were gardeners, but they were willing to look around and hear a bit about our philosophy, as part of one of their monthly meetings. They had great questions and were game to troop around in the mulch. I even found that one of them is a UC Master Gardener (hi Theresa!) and one is hoping to be, just like me (hi Robin!). I love walking around the garden and talking about what we've done, and I love turning folks on to different ways of having a suburban yard. This crowd was especially gracious, given that so many of them were not really 'into' gardening. Thanks to them and to my neighbor Karen for a great evening!

This morning, given some cooler weather, I decided it was time to start on my annual stockpile of canned crushed tomatoes. One of our tomato plants in particular had a LOT of ripe fruits on it - a variety called "Mortgage Lifter." For those of you who haven't heard the story of this pink, 1-2 lb heirloom tomato, it is said that M.C. Byles of West Virginia crossed varieties for six years until he introduced this one in the 1940's. After he sold the plants for $1 each, he was able to pay off the $6k mortgage on his house, and he named the variety, Mortgage Lifter! It's a beautiful fruit indeed.

Hello, lover

Hello, lover

They are large, juicy, and very tasty, and I like them a lot despite the fact they won't be paying off any mortgages around here, more's the pity. Today I used quite a few of these particular fruits, along with a few Black Krim, a few Nebraska Wedding, and several paste tomatoes of differing varieties.

Mortgage Lifters on the left 

Mortgage Lifters on the left 

Here's my process: I cut out the stem, mark an 'X' in the fruit close to the bottom, dip them for a minute in boiling water, then plunge them into ice water. I slip off the skins and rip the fruits up with my hands, discarding many of the seeds as I do so (skins and seeds and extra juice goes to the chickens, though I like a few seeds in my jars too). Then I put all the ripped-up fruit in to a big pot, and bring it to a boil, stirring and crushing as they heat up. I boil them for five minutes, then put them into warm sterilized canning jars leaving a 1/2" headspace. Release the air bubbles, add 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid per quart, clean the rims, and water bath can for 45 minutes. Mine always end up with lots of juice, but that's ok. We tend to use these canned tomatoes for chili or ragu, both of which are only improved with extra juice.

Did you know that the nutrition of tomatoes increases when they are cooked or canned? True!

We tend to use 1-2 cans of crushed tomatoes every month, so ideally I'd like to preserve at least 12 quarts, double that would be better. If you don't grow tomatoes of your own, now is the time to hit your local farmer's market and stock up on your own crushed tomatoes for winter!

Oh yes, I also want to recommend a film, which I haven't seen yet, I just know it's going to be good (I heard about it on 'Forum'). I somehow missed the showing on our local PBS station, but I'm trying to find another place to see it locally, or maybe I can host a screening. The film is called 'Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm,' and it's about a peach farm in the central valley of CA. It's a somewhat famous farm here for their lovely, organic, drought-resistant peaches. I've been longing to try a program they have in which you 'adopt' a tree, then go to the farm and harvest the fruit when it comes ripe. Doesn't that sound fun? Unfortunately the farm is hours away from here, so I have to figure out logistics. Field trip?

Yay for the Urban Farm Tour!

This morning I was up at 6 after a restless night. Tom had had dreams that deer crashed through our fence and ate everything in sight, leaving nothing for our guests to view. I combated nervousness by walking the garden several times while sipping glass after glass of cold brewed coffee.

Good morning, North Garden!
I noticed a few new things. Figs! Yahoo!

a good omen
potato flowers
pole beans working their way up the trellis

I was feeling good about the garden, but then I noticed spotted cucumber beetles on the potato leaves. I collected what I could and fed them to the chickens. Dang it. These guys can decimate all my melons, cucumbers, potatoes... Double dang it. I vowed to research this later, and added that to the running list of things to be done in my head: "...the peas need to be pulled out and replaced with pumpkins, the shallots need to be harvested and replaced with cantaloupes, the sweet potato slips are ready to be planted in with the corn..." All of this monotony calmed me, and I was happy to see our first group of guests arrive.

And the tour was terrific fun. We hosted close to 100 folks on this sunny, windy, beautiful day. I was overwhelmed with the awesomeness of gardeners - interested, seeking, searching, learning, laughing. I got some great questions, made some interesting connections, and was generally excited all over again by what we're all doing here, in our yards. Gardeners are making the world a better place! Many of the people that visited toady are already themselves accomplished farmers, beekeepers, and chicken keepers. I learned as much as I taught. Tom and I are tired but happy. The kids came home from their first Bar Mitzvah tired and happy. It's was a red-letter day, for sure.

The folks at the Institute of Urban Homesteading do good work, and did a great job planning the event. They have tours in Oakland and Hayward later this year, if you'd still like to participate.

admiring the chickens

passing the bee hive
discussing hoop houses and row covers
No cooking tonight, I promise, and the garden list can wait till tomorrow. We feel recharged in soul but pooped in body. Totally worth it.

Interesting finds

Just a quick post to show you some cool things I've found in the garden and woods lately.

Our watermelon plants are coming up. The variety I planted is called 'Moon and Stars.' I expected to see this pattern on the fruit, but isn't it neat that it's also on the leaves?

I noticed this 'bouquet' of Lysurus mokusin (or Lantern stinkhorns) coming up by the train shed. Click the link for other fun pictures of stinkhorns. The more I learn about these fungi, the more I'm intrigued. This particular kind comes up quite frequently in my garden, on the wood chips.

I found this beautiful caterpillar this morning, not ON the carrots, but near them in another plant (apparently it likes carrots and carrot-like food and blossoms). It's a papilio polyxenes, or Black Swallowtail. I'll be curious to see if it sticks around and pupates.

And finally, while walking with the dog this morning, I found several kinds of ripe plums on wild plum trees. I usually bring home some to eat, but I was feeling generous and gave them to the chickens, who adore any fruit (I've been giving them all the fallen peaches and apples from my trees, and they eat it all up, including the pits). Since I'm a little short on greens in the garden at the moment (although it's nearly time to rip up the peas), I'm feeding the chickens whatever I can find. They do get regular chicken food (grains), but I really prefer to heavily supplement their diet with plant forage. This way, the eggs will have superior nutrition. And, it can only help keep the chickens healthy. Besides, in the wild, they would eat all this stuff.

Tom and I are gearing up for the Urban Farm Tour, which is coming up in two days. I have an insider tip about discount tickets - so if you're on the fence, and need an incentive, leave a comment here and I'll give you the scoop. Meanwhile, regular readers can look for a post about it Saturday night, with pictures! We're extremely excited about having a lot of folks over to look at the garden!

May Day

Tra la, it's May, the lusty month of May
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray
Tra la, it's here, that shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear

It's May, it's May, that gorgeous holiday
When every maiden prays that her lad will be a cad
It's mad, it's gay, a libelous display
Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes, the lusty month of May

-Lerner and Loewe, Camelot

May 1st, Sugarloaf Open Space, Walnut Creek, CA

I don't know if I feel quite like THAT during May (though maybe I'd like to!), but this month does seem fresh and bursting with life and full of possibilities. (If May DOES make you feel like that, perhaps this event is for you! World Naked Gardening Day.) The wilting heat of summer is yet to come, there is still green in the hills, and wildlife abounds.

Speaking of abounding wildlife, we are having serious continuing issues with the deer. So, near the top of our list this weekend is to start our fence-raising project. The list, you say? What list is that? Why, it's the list that I start on Monday and add to all week long, until by the time Friday night comes around, I'm confident it won't all get done over the weekend. Somehow it always does. See, we really are weekend hobby farmers - almost nothing happens in the yard over the working week. Spot watering, yes, sporadic weeding, yes, an occasional digging in of a plant, yes. But nothing substantial, that is all saved for the weekend. We're just too busy with work, school, and kid activities. And this weekend, I'm going to be gone for a day, and that's stressful, because we have so much to accomplish in such a short time.

Here's this week's list of projects for the weekend.

Notice the lack of a nap on this list. :)

Last night, I cut off the largest artichoke and we all shared it! The smell coming off it right after I cut it off was heavenly, and it tasted pretty good, despite my mistakes during cooking. (I thought that since it was fresh, it would cook faster. No.)

All the seedlings are coming up - corn, beans, squash, collards, romaine, collards - it's the miracle of gardening. I never get tired of this wonderful surprise, that life begins from a tiny seed, so small you think it will never sprout.

It's hot, though - 91 today. The hot weather brings other surprises. At work each day, we take a walk with the kids. Many of them like to walk off to the side of the path, through the weeds. Earlier this week, the child I was walking with bent down in the weeds to pick up a stick and a movement caught my eye - a four foot long snake slithered away from us and stopped about a foot away. Not shy at all, and definitely not a rattlesnake, I stopped to take a picture, which was difficult because I was wrangling kids. Not the best shot.

Just his head and neck

I thought it was probably a gopher snake, and Gary at California Herps agreed with me when I consulted him. This was an exciting find for me, but I think it freaked out the other teachers. It also makes us realize that we need to be more careful with the kids walking in the weeds!

May also brings flowers on the buckeye trees, spotted all along paths and woods.

The blooms are actually poisonous to honeybees, and we have one in our yard that I planted years ago. It's only gotten about three feet tall, and the deer eat the leaves constantly, so I won't mind removing it. (That's on the list!) But they sure are gorgeous in the wild.

Farm Tour tickets are selling, and we hope very much that you can come be a part of it.

Catch you on the flip side of the weekend, and when I do, we'll see if everything on the list got done.