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If I had to choose only one food to grow, it would be tomatoes.
Flavour is one thing, but their variety, productivity and their ease of handling and versatility in the kitchen means they contribute a lot from a small patch of soil.
Whether in a deck container or a garden plot, get those plants producing early in order to maximize your harvest. As seedlings, they should have lots of room for their roots, and when planted, moderate fertilizer is best and keep them warm and watered.
You can also plant a good portion of the stem underground to increase root formation, which supports greater growth.
When planting, I mound up the soil to catch the early season sun and use a tomato cage to keep them upright, keeping the soil sun-baked through the summer.
“Blossom end rot” is a problem in dry conditions. It is avoided by watering well and seeing that the soil is calcium-rich (add bone meal when planting).
As early tomatoes start to ripen, I pick them and leave them at room temperature protected from fruit flies. They’ll continue to ripen and sweeten indoors, and I enjoy them fresh for snacks and in salads.
As they accumulate, I start processing them in batches, removing any spots that have developed. When stewed up with salt and pepper and served with a sprig of dill, they make a lovely lunch.
If you don’t have time to process now, tomatoes can be frozen whole to make sauce later. If you are able, you have the opportunity now to add in whatever other garden produce you have on hand, like zucchini, carrots, squash, onions, garlic, basil and oregano. The sauce can be bottled or frozen. Some cooks scald tomatoes before cooking to assist in removing their skins, but I don’t mind their texture.
Botulism is a fatal poison that improperly canned tomato products can develop. This is a real concern with a simple solution. The bacteria that causes it typically produce gases when growing, so when you open it, you’ll notice pressure built up, or see lots of air bubbles: I wouldn't touch it. To be super cautious, remember the toxin breaks down when boiled, so just make a habit of never tasting your preserved tomatoes until after they’ve been boiled. Simple.
Some gardeners remove all the leaves from the plant in fall, but the leaves collect energy from the sun, which speeds ripening. You can prune back some leaves and branches early to encourage fruit and to allow good sun penetration and air circulation.
I have made a habit of protecting my tomato plants with old sheets and tarps for the first few fall frosts so that more green tomatoes ripen, but when the weather finally really cools off, I take in all the tomatoes. I make green tomato chow and allow the rest to ripen in a box or paper bag. It is important to check them every few days to avoid spoilage, but this can provide another full month of fresh tomatoes.
If you are caught unprepared by frost, you may be able to rescue tomato plants by hosing them well with water in the morning before the sun hits them. I have had good success with this trick.
Caroline Cameron lives in Strathlorne, Inverness County, and offers gardening and guiding services around Cape Breton Island. She welcomes your gardening comments and questions by email or on Facebook at Nature/Nurture Gardening & Hiking.