Thursday, January 28, 2010

Black Tomatoes - The Dark Side of the Garden

Tomato lovers are discovering a secret that heirloom gardeners have known for years. Black tomatoes are among the finest tasting tomatoes in the world. Typically, black tomatoes boast a complex flavor that blends smoky sweetness with mild tartness. Some describe it as intense, while others often call it earthy.

Like many other ‘black’ plants, black tomatoes are not truly black. The fruits that fall under the spectrum of black tomatoes encompass a range of color that includes hues from smoky red to deep burgundy to dusky brown to reddish-purple.

Believed to originate in the Southern Ukraine, black tomatoes first gained notice when they traveled back home with Russian soldiers returning from the Crimean War in the mid 19th century.

Over the years, as plant breeders and gardeners discovered the unique flavor of black tomatoes, new varieties began to spread throughout the Russian empire and into nearby Germany. Today, gardeners from all across the world can choose from among the dozens of types of heirloom black tomatoes listed in seed catalogues and websites.

Cherokee Purple (80 days) Often hailed as the best-tasting heirloom tomato, Cherokee Purple has a past steeped in American history. Unknown until the late twentieth century, the cultivar is said to have originated from the Cherokee nation in Tennessee.

The fruits of this heirloom treasure are large, beefy and absolutely sublime. They generally weigh in between 10 to 13 ounces. Their coloring is a handsome combination of burgundy and purple, and they are borne on densely foliaged vines. Use thick slices in sandwiches, salads or eat them sun warmed directly from the garden for a true treat.

Black Krim (75 days) Another must-have black tomato, Black Krim is also one of the most prolific, offering large harvests of deep maroon fruits with green shoulders. It originates from the Isle of Krim on the Black Sea and is one of the oldest varieties of black tomatoes.

The fruits grow about 3 to 4-inches wide and weigh approximately 10 to 12 ounces. The intense flavor hints of wine and salt and is ideal for salads, fresh eating or any number of cooked dishes.

Black Cherry (75 days) Dangling like purple-black jewels on their vigorous vines, Black Cherry heirloom tomatoes are produced in large clusters on tall indeterminate plants. Like most black tomatoes, the flavor is complex – rich, smoky, sweet, but slightly salty. The fruits resemble burgundy grapes and grow just an inch across, making them perfect for a quick snack when working in the garden.

Black from Tula (75 days) This large-fruited heirloom is quickly gaining ground on Black Krim in terms of popularity. With its 3 to 4-inch wide, slightly flattened, dark reddish-brown fruits, Black from Tula is a welcome addition to any tomato garden. The flavor is dark, rich, slightly salty, yet sweet and simply exceptional.

The strong, quick-growing vines are indeterminate and will yield a good supply of 8 to 12 ounce fruits over a long period of time. As with many black tomatoes, cracking can be a problem, so don’t overwater when the fruits are maturing.

Japanese Black Trifele (75 days) With its unique shape and deep color, Japanese Black Trifele (translated into truffle) is one of the more unusual black tomatoes available to gardeners. Considered to be the blackest of the black tomatoes, both the flesh and skin color are an attractive burgundy-black.

The crack-resistant fruits are about the size and shape of a small Bartlett pear, and are borne in heavy clusters all summer long. The flavor is rich and faintly smoky, while the texture is smooth and silky.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tonight's Salad

It's been raining here all day and much of the thick snow cover has been washed away.. exposing some of my long-buried salad greens! Here is some mache, also known as corn salad or lamb's lettuce. I harvest the rosettes and serve them whole sprinkled with just a little lemon juice and olive oil. The spoon-shaped leaves are very tender and slightly nutty - a nice treat from the garden in late January. Although I usually plant mache under cover in early autumn - in cold frames or mini-hoop houses, these have been growing with no protection at all - shows you how cold-tolerant mache really is!

Sungold Tomatoes!

I thought I'd post a few photos of 'Sungold' tomatoes, since I spend so much time talking about them! They have an extremely high sugar content, making them true garden candy. They are also very easy to grow, prolific and disease resistant. Sungold is always the first tomato to ripen in our garden, offering its first fruits in late July. Mind you, I don't know if any have actually ever made it to the kitchen! They all seem to get gobbled up right in the tomato patch!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Must-have Veggies!

I just ordered our seeds today - spring is on its way! Although we always try some new varieties each summer, we also have a list of must-have's that we plant year after year. This is because they are outstanding in some way - heavy cropping, very disease/pest resistant, reliable or just plain delicious. Sometimes, they have all of these traits! Here are a few of our family favourites...

Beans - I love beans.. love love love them! There are so many beans available to the gardener - snap, shell, lima, fava, garbanzo and soybean, just to name a few and we grow many of them in our zone 5b/6 garden. I start planting in mid-May and the last bean usually comes off the vine in late October.

Snap beans and soybeans are family favourites and when it comes to snap beans, I tend to plant mostly pole types. They offer a larger yield per square foot than bush beans. There are also so many beautiful bean colours - from green to yellow to purple to burgundy to striped types, there is a snap bean for every garden.

  • 'Emerite' or 'Fortex' - Simply the perfect beans. These vigorous pole types produce a heavy crop of long, thin green snap beans that can be picked as 'filet' beans when young or left to mature to regular sized beans. Excellent flavour!
  • 'Top Notch Golden Wax' - This is a yellow bush bean with flat, bright yellow pods. It was the bean of choice for my parents 25 years ago and I still grow it because it is so delicious.
  • 'Purple Podded Pole' - An heirloom bean with deep purple pods that turn green when cooked. The kids call them 'magic beans'!
  • Soybean 'Envy' - Envy is the earliest maturing soybean - perfect for the North. Plant in late May and harvest in late August/September. Boil the whole beans in salted water for 5 min. Drain, plate and sprinkle with salt. Even the kids gobble them up!

Carrots - No veggie garden is complete with a few types of crunchy, sweet carrots! We harvest them all winter long - at least until we run out sometime in late February. Although we traditionally think of carrots as orange, there are actually many colours available through seed catalogues - from purple to white to red to yellow. Try planting a rainbow of carrots this year.

  • 'Napoli' - This is the carrot that we plant in early August for a late fall and winter crop. As the temperature drops, the carrots get sweeter and sweeter! The kids cannot get enough.
  • 'Atomic Red' - A unique carrot that actually becomes healthier and more deeply coloured as its cooked. The children love this one and the coral-red roots are very pretty on a plate.
  • 'Purple Haze' - An All-America Selections winner, this is a deep purple carrot with bright orange centres. The flavour is sweet and the roots grow about 7 to 8-inches long.

Cucumbers - We grow 4 or 5 different cukes every summer and typically grow them up on a trellis to save space and keep the plants disease free.
  • 'Lemon' - Crisp, delicious, never bitter.. a must-have cuke! Pick when they're light green. If they reach the bright yellow stage, they'll be past their prime.
  • 'Garden Oasis' - This is a Lebanese-type cucumber that is best picked when 4 to 5 inches long. The fruits are thin-skinned and super crisp, and the plants are disease resistant.
Salad Greens - If you eat a lot of salads, then you must try growing some of your own fresh greens! Most types are fast growing - especially if you eat them as baby greens and are also very easy to grow.
  • Arugula - I start planting seed in early April and we harvest well into winter, with just a little protection. The leaves are addictive - peppery and perfect with just a little lemon juice, olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.
  • Baby Spinach - Another cold weather lover, baby spinach (and grown-up spinach too!) is a very low maintenance salad green. Plant for spring, fall and winter crops, as the hot summer sun will cause the plants to go to seed.
  • Mache - A French winter salad green, mache is nutty, yet so tender. We pick and eat the rosettes whole in early spring, fall and winter. So good!
  • 'Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce' - An heirloom that offers a very early harvest. Plant in early April and start harvesting by mid-May. Brilliant light green leaves are crinkly and delicious.
  • 'Lolla Rossa' Lettuce - Flamboyant! The red and green leaves are heavily frilled and add colour and interest to mixed salads.
Peas - What child (or adult!) doesn't love peas? They're also cold-tolerant and can be planted in late April. Choose early, mid and late types for a long season of harvest.
  • 'Super Sugar Snap' - Possibly the most famous pea for its sweet pods and peas. Eat them whole or shell if you must. Whenever I can't find the kids (or my husband) in early July, I look in the pea patch where I find them eating their fill!
Well, obviously I could go on (and on and on), but I should stop before I write an entire seed catalogue! I will post on our favourite tomatoes in the next day or so...

Happy Gardening!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Leek Soup

I love the way leeks look in the garden - so architectural with their thick stalks and tall fan of deep green leaves. They are also the perfect veggie for a year round garden, as they are very cold tolerant and can be harvested throughout winter with just a little protection. Yet, until I first grew them three years ago, I don't think I had ever eaten a leek! So when my first planting was ready to harvest, I had no idea what to do with them. Lucky for me, I happened upon a good recipe in Canadian Living magazine and with a little tweaking, I think it's now the perfect soup for a cold winter's day.

Leek Soup

2 tbsp olive oil
3 leeks (white and light green parts only), thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1/4 tsp dried thyme
dash of salt and pepper
3 medium potatoes
4 cups of sodium-reduced (or homemade!) chicken stock
2 cups water

In a medium-sized pot, heat oil over med-high heat. Saute leeks, celery, carrots, thyme, salt and pepper until softened - about 8 minutes.

Add potatoes, stock and water. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender - about 15 minutes.

With a hand blender (or in a regular blender - just let soup cool a bit first), puree soup until smooth and reheat for a few minutes on med-low heat.

Enjoy with crusty bread!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A few photos...

Seedy Thoughts

Spring might still be a few months away, but in my mind, the gardening season begins with the turn of the New Year. Laugh if you will, but I know I’m not the only one with this mindset because when I check my mailbox every afternoon a few more seed catalogues have arrived. At last count, I now have over 38 different catalogues from around North America!

Although I’m not a big believer in New Year resolutions, I have decided to get more organized this year and spent 2 hours this past weekend going through my leftover seeds (3 shoeboxes full) and cataloguing what I have and what I’m going to need for the coming year. Surprisingly, I need very little, which is a bit disappointing, as I love pouring through seed catalogues.

I tend to order from the same 3 or 4 seed companies each year and because shipping prices can be high, I generally place my order with a few like-minded gardening friends. I thought I'd share a few of my favourite seed sources with you, as well as some of the varieties that I always grow. Some of these companies are website only, while others have free seed catalogues that you can request. Enjoy!

Renee's Garden - - This is one of my favourite sources for antique annuals (sweet peas, sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias) and gourmet veggies (sungold tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, salad green mixes, emerite french pole beans). Website only

Kitchen Garden Seeds - - free catalogue - A great source for annual flowers, herbs and gourmet veggies. It's also a good read with a lot of helpful information. Again, sungold tomatoes, lemon cukes, costuluto tomatoes, purple podded pole beans, emerite beans, black nasturtiums, giant Italian parsley and much more.

Heirloom Acres Seeds - - another web only company - This is a great find! They are very inexpensive and have a low shipping cost. They also offer bulk seed at good prices. They are a bit slow to ship though, so you'll be waiting at least 3 weeks. Try their Heirloom Acres Spring Mix Lettuce - my favourite mix! I use it to edge my garden beds from early spring to late fall. Also, they have lemon cukes, Black Krim tomatoes, arugula and much more!

Halifax Seed - - A Canadian tradition, Halifax Seed now offers my two favourite veggies to grow - sungold tomatoes and lemon cukes! They also have our favourite yellow bean - top notch golden wax and much more! The catalogue is free.

Happy Gardening!

Winter Leeks

Who says you can't grow veggies in the winter? I shuffled out through the snow yesterday to pick a few leeks from the garden for a big pot of leek soup! Delicious!

Leeks are very forgiving in regards to cold weather and a perfect winter vegetable for a the gardener who doesn't want to go to the time and expense of building a cold frame. For added protection, you can cover your leeks (or carrots, parsnips, beets) with a thick layer of shredded leaves or straw in late fall and then add a sheet of floating row cover to keep it all together.

Whenever you feel like fresh leeks, simply reach under the layer of cover and leaves and harvest a few stalks! We pick leeks all winter long - at least until we run out around late February!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A View of the New Kitchen Garden in July 2008

When we first put a 1000 sq foot veggie garden in the backyard, I knew it would be too small.. so, my ever-patient husband and I expanded it the next year. Here is the new part to the garden (along with my neighbours small plot in the background!)

Happy New Year

Hello Everyone,

Welcome to my blog! Let me introduce myself - I'm a professional garden writer and host of The Weekend Gardener, a weekly radio show that airs across the Maritime provinces. I'm a passionate veggie gardener who loves to grow unique and tasty heirlooms year round in my zone 5b-6 garden. Currently, the kitchen garden measures about 2000 sq feet and even though it's buried under a foot of snow, we're still eating leeks, mache and arugula.

I also take a lot of photos of my gardens and other nearby gardens (an obscene amount really!) and I'll be posting many of them here for you to check out.

I'm also working on my first book for Storey Publishing (, which will be published in 2011 (sounds so far away, doesn't it?) It will detail easy and inexpensive ways to keep your veggie garden going 12 months of the year - my current obsession.

Anyway, thanks for joining me and I hope you continue to visit and comment!

Take care,