Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Parsley Sweetens the Soul

We've been focused on some of the early tomatoes these past weeks, getting them off to a good start. But today we switch gears and assemble the ingredients for our Valentine Day CLASSIC LOVE POTION Herb Bowl. The ingredients are Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  We may add a Pansy or Viola for color, and a trinket, maybe, to assist with the love spell.
Why these herbs?  Parsley provokes lust and love, and sweetens the soul (and the breath).  Sage magically honors weddings and ensures domestic harmony.  Rosemary is the herb of fidelity.  Thyme makes a lady irresistible to men and helps her identify her true love.
The Sage, Rosemary and Thyme plants are already in three-inch containers in the greenhouse, growing slowly in these short winter days.  We keep them in full sun on unheated tables and maintain moderate moisture to protect against frost.  The are looking good and will be ready to transplant as soon as the Parsley and Violas reach the proper size.   This year we will use a red bamboo fiber biodegradable container rather than the plastic ovals shown on our website (www.colecanyonfarm.com).
Today we start parsley seed.  Sounds simple enough.  But which parsley?  The old adage - "Sow parsley, sow babies!" is true for all of them.  Johnny's Seed Catalog has four types of parsley seed: A medium flat leaf, a large curly leaf, a petite flat leaf and the gigantic Italian flat leaf.  We offer the Italian Giant in spring for a quick transplant.  It has a deep taproot that does not rest easy in a small market container and is way too big for a Love Potion bowl.  So we will select the petite flat leaf or the triple curl - either of which will stay comfortable in the container for a couple of months, especially if they are kept well trimmed.
Parsley seed can be a little chaotic on the germination shelf.  While the tomatoes and pepper seedlings spring up in fairly strict order and mature with military precision, parsley seeds march to their own drummer. First this one appears, then that one - then nothing, then a bunch, a few show off true leaves while half of the tray appears to be empty.  With patience, though, they will all emerge and then spring to life quickly.  They are easily transplanted into Love Potion containers and three-inch pots for sale at early spring farmers' markets.  
We recommend that parsley be planted into the garden in early spring or late summer.  It likes a deep, friable soil, cool temperatures, and moderate to hight nutrition.  We use it in the garden as a nursery plant for other, more tender plants that need a little protection from the sun and winds, so we start it early enough to be well established by the time the soil is warm enough for basil.  It also provides a nice amount of shade for emerging French Tarragon.
Chop it into salads, juice it, make a pesto, use it as a garnish, or combine it with Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme to cast a spell on the one you love!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gregori's Altai Beefsteak Tomato

A fellow named Robert Gibbon Johnson, a prominent citizen of Salem, New Jersey, is credited with being the first to eat the tomato in pubic and surviving!  That would have been in 1820, a time in which the folks of that region believed the fruit of the tomato to be poison.  The tomato had been very well known as a non-poisonous fruit in South America and had been exported in seed form to Spain where it quickly moved throughout the entire Mediterranean region.  Soon it could be found from Great Britain to Siberia, but it made its way slowly to the Eastern United States.
If you would like to know more abut the history of the tomato in the US, check out THE TOMATO IN AMERICA by Andrew F. Smith.  It's not exactly a page turner, but it's got a lot of good information including some early recipes for tomato soup, ketchup,and instructions in making tomato pills, useful in treating 'derangements of the liver'.
Today, over 12 million tons of tomatoes are grown commercially in the US and that does not count the vast private harvests.  Many varieties that are grown in this country were developed elsewhere.  The Roma is a classic example.
Another variety of tomato that we start now for our fearless early gardeners is the Gregori's Altai.  This beefsteak type tomato from this plant can reach 8 - 12 oz.  Gregori's Altai originated in the Altai Mountains of Russia (Siberia) near the Chinese border, which explains the tolerance this plant has for cooler weather.  The jury is still out on the length of time it takes for it to produce in our coastal climate.  The TomatoFest website says 90 days.  The catalog where we purchase the seed says 67 days.  Other sites range everywhere in between.  We start it early because it puts up with the cold days of early spring and always comes in first with a big slicing tomato.  And it is productive - you should expect a lot more tomatoes from it than from a Brandywine or other long season beefsteak type tomato.
A final note:  The tomato plant is indigenous to South America but had to wait for those fast paced sailors from Spain to move it north of the equator.  If you are really interested in learning more abut the migration of various food producing plants that satisfied the needs of early farming cultures, I strongly recommend GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL by Jared Diamond.  It all comes down to latitude, dude!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Early Girl Tomato

This is the week that we start our first batch of tomato and pepper plants for early spring sale.  Today we put 400 Early Girl seeds into plug trays and set them on the heat shelf.
Of our four best selling tomatoes (Stupice, Early Girl, Sun Gold and Sweet 100's), the fans of Early Girl are the most devoted and reluctant to accept an alternate variety.  I was taken aback by that level of loyalty until I grew it myself.  First of all, the Early Girl tomato tolerates sweeping temperature shifts; from 40 degrees at night to 80 degrees during the day.  It delivers a nice round red medium sized tomato that is packed with a balanced flavor that works well in salads and on sandwiches.  Its thick wall makes it a good candidate for canning.  It seems like the perfect tomato for short season and coastal growers.  It is a hybrid, though, so you have to buy new seed each year - or a nice healthy little seedling from Cole Canyon Farm.
A couple of years ago the seed became a little hard to find in commercial quantities.  I wondered why and was told there had been a seed crop failure.  What?  There can't be just one seed crop for such a hugely popular tomato, can there?  Since Early Girl is a hybrid someone must hold a patent on it.  I wondered who.  What I found was that the plant was originally developed in France as a short season market tomato but was considered a failure because it didn't transport well.  Ahha!  Then it must be a good garden variety.  According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, the seed was 'copied' here in the US and sold through Burpee Seed Company as a companion plant to Better Boy.  That was back in the 1970's.  Since the, the patent to the seed has moved around to various 'owners'.  Wikipedia says that that patent is currently owned by Monsanto.  I looked that up on the Monsanto website but didn't find Early Girl mentioned specifically.  There are many hybrid tomato varieties sold through Seminis, which is now wholly owned by Monsanto.
Enough of this.  To think that anyone owns a seed boggles the mind.  And that is why we love our heirlooms - they are un-ownable.
One last thing about Early Girl tomatoes.  If you have a chance to try a dry-farmed Early Girl, take advantage.  This is a tomato growing technique that uses little, if any,water to produce fruit with intense flavor.  If you Google 'dry-farmed tomatoes', you should arrive at either Dirty Girl or Molino Creek Farms; both well known for their great dry-farmed tomatoes.  And if you have deep, rich soils, a little rain or fog, then you might be able to dry-farm your Early Girls, too.  Check it out.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stupice Early Tomato

This is absolutely without question the most successful tomato plant for gardeners who live near the Pacific Coast, here in Zone 8 (or 9 or 10, depending on which side of the hills you live on).  It's pronounced StuPeechKa and hails from what is now known as the Czech Republic.  The large potato-type leaves are a dead give away that it's an heirloom, but the story goes that it was in fact a hybrid that became quite stable.  After many years, it began to reproduce to type from seed, and was re-classified an heirloom some fifty years ago.
We have a cherished customer in Campbell, California who swears that she has had tomatoes off the same plant for five years!  She SWEARS by it and even brought me a sample in January that tasted pretty darn good for a winter tomato.
Stupice is an indeterminate, but stays fairly small in size as a plant.  Some people grow it in large containers.  The tomato is fairly small - about 2 oz. - and tasty.  It is absolutely one of the earliest tomatoes in the garden and will reward you with a long productive season.  What makes it so popular here is that it succeeds in setting fruit close to the Pacific Coast, where it sees little sun and few warm days.  
The seeds are readily available from most mail order seed companies and the seedlings are readily available.  We at Cole Canyon Farm have just started about 200 of them and will continue to start the seeds throughout most of 2009.  
Check in tomorrow for more information about other Early and Ultra Early tomatoes.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Starting Tomato Seeds

December 22, 2008

The winter solstice occurred yesterday at 7:04 AM - the shortest day of the year; last night, the longest night.  It's time to start tomato seeds.
We sell organic garden seedlings at farmers' markets here on the Central coast of California.  By March, many of our customers are eager to get a tomato plant into the ground.  By April, they feel it is a necessity.  By May, they are in a frenzy.  To accommodate those who hope to beat the cool temperatures of winter, we start our first seeds on the day of the Winter Solstice.  Here's how we do that:
We have a seed room - formerly, a one-car garage - that has been fixed up with shelving and hot water heat tubes running under the shelves.  A circulating pump keeps hot water flowing through the tubes to maintain a temperature of 78 degrees 24 hours each day.  The fluorescent lights above each shelf add warmth to the shelves above and in total we can accommodate 68 plug trays.  Each tray has room for 200 seeds.  That would be a total of 13,600 little seeds, each in their own plug of a sterile peat/perlite mix on a cozy little shelf.  (I should mention here that that cozy little shelf is very attractive to cats so we have caged the shelves to discourage feline napping on warm plug trays!) The lights come on automatically for 14 hours each day, but the watering is done by hand and can take over an hour when the shelves are full.
At that temperature, it takes a tomato seed about three weeks to emerge and develop to a size suitable for transplanting into a three-inch pot.  In the winter months, we often leave them a little longer before moving them up and out.
A tomato plant is a hardy little thing and most will survive the transplant from the plug tray into the larger container.  They spend another day or two on the warm shelves and then move into the greenhouse.  There they receive full sun, heated tables - also warmed by tubes of hot water - and good air circulation.  The soil temperature has decreased from 78 degrees to the 50-60 degree range.
A well-established seedling will tolerate transplant into garden soil warmed to 50 degrees.  It may not flourish immediately, but it will be well on its way to vigorous spring growth as soon as the soil warms to 60 degrees during the day.
So, if you have a nice protected garden area that receives at least 6 hours of daily sun, you can try transplanting cool weather tomato starts in mid-March.  Beware cold snaps, drenching and prolonged rain, hail, and other spring surprises.  Try covering the plants with Reemay floating row cover and keep the soil warm with black plastic mulch.  
Next blog will discuss specific early tomato plants.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Solstice

December 21, 2008

Today is our last day of Farmers' Markets for 2008.  We had an amazing batch of plants on the truck and found it to be equally amazing how many folks are buying, and hopefully planting, vegetables and herbs this time of year.  We do live in paradise after all and we can garden year round.  In truth, though, these next six weeks are a little less than inviting because we will surely have some dark days, some rain and wind, and you might be better off in a comfy chair reading a book about gardening rather than mucking about in the wet soil.  

Our life is a little different, though.  It is our tradition here at Cole Canyon Farm to start our cool weather tomato seeds on the day of the Winter Solstice.  I'm fudging a little though, and plan to do that tomorrow.  What are cool weather tomatoes?

None of them, to be truthful.  All tomatoes do best in warm balmy weather with sunny days and comfy night time temperatures.   But some tomato plants have been developed, or have evolved, to set fruit quickly and in less that optimum weather.  You find those in your seed catalogues under the heading Early Tomatoes.  Most of them bear small to medium sized fruit, have a slightly higher acid to sugar balance, and are determinate (meaning bush types that set fruit over a short time frame).  There are some early tomatoes though that are larger, sweeter and indeterminate - but we find those don't grow as well here in our coastal climate.

So this year we will start Stupice, Glacier, Early Girl, Siletz, Gregori's Altai, and Oregon Spring.  And our next blog will go into much more detail about those types of tomatoes.  Ah, yes, something to dream about; fresh tomatoes with basil and mozzarella!