Thursday, January 08, 2015

Plant your tomato seeds!

It's that time already in Central Florida! The aim is to have seedlings large enough to transplant by March 1... I'm usually late, and it all works out OK. These aren't really my A-List of tomatoes, but, really, they'll work. I've written this many times in many ways, but here are my priorities for tomatoes:
1) Have a good mix of cherry, small, medium and a few large. The large tomatoes are really for bragging rights... It's HARD to grow large tomatoes in our climate! And they don't really merit the effort. But it's very easy to grow smaller ones. Juliet is an all-around best tomato for Florida--it has remarkable resistance to skin split and to piercing insects. Plus, it's multifunctional--it's a small-bodied Italian Roman type, so you can make a great sauce with it, and you can eat them out of hand. 
2) Pick early- and mid-season. 
3) Hybrids. Yeah, I know, no romance. But in exchange, you get tomatoes! Forget about your olde-tymey tomatoes... they were great a hundred years ago!
4) Pick the tomatoes with the most letters after them! (The letters indicate disease and pest resistance.)
5) Only indeterminates. Do NOT bother with determinates. Trust me. 
6) Worry less about spacing when you plant them, more about SUPPORT. Look through this blog for my ideas on trellising. Ultimately, the best, cheapest, most adaptable trellis is made with a mix of electrical conduit, rebar for sidewalks, and LOTS OF ZIPTIES. figure that each plant will weigh in excess of 35 pounds when fully bearing. Multiply that times the number of plants, and then add zome more zipties!
7) Plan to pick them earlier than you'd think: I like to pick my fruit when the bottom of the tomato is fully colored. Then, I let them ripen on the counter. Better flavor, better texture.
8) I always end up buying a few plants from the nursery. They're never very good, but the temptation is irresistible. 

I really like Tomande, a constant in my garden. It looks and tastes like an old-fashioned tomato, but is an excellent hybrid. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The pickleworm is arrived... And an update on the Central Florida Garden in May

It was a great cucumber season. But I noticed a couple worms today... If you search this site, you'll see the various ways I've tried to defeat the worm, but, really, after such a great season, this time I'm going to call it quits... So I picked the ones on the vine, soaked them in a bucket until the worm popped out (only a couple had been attacked), and will give them to friends... (Only so many cucumbers can one man eat!) 

By the way, you can greatly extend the freshness of a cucumber by wrapping it tightly in plastic wrap (I use Saran) and tucking it into the refrigerator. Those "English cucumber" guys are on to something...

I'm also amending my "best crops for Florida" list to include Fortex pole beans. Wow. The sheer fecundity and ease of culture. Very tender (too tender, if anything), and completely stringless, even when they're quite long and bean-y. They are very early and vigorous, though it seems they go out of production as quickly as they come into production: The first sowing produced beans for about a month before declining (considerably less than, say, Kentucky wonder). But I sowed a second crop, and it's come into high production as the first crop declines. I don't know how heat- and drought-tolerant these beans are--likely not as tolerant as the Rattlesnake Beans. But the vines are deep green and pest/disease free now, after ten days of 88+ degrees and after some torrential rains, so, they're clearly tough beans!

I planted some Rattlesnakes last week, and they're already up, so I foresee several months of continuous bean production. This is my Fortex row. The vines are growing up seven-foot "walls" made of electrical conduit and concrete rebar wire sheets, and when they reached the top of the rebar, I wedged some branches into the wire and the beans continued merrily up to about twelve feet, still producing beans on their way up. I wonder: Do beans stop producing when they reach the top, or do they stop producing after X-days of production, because that's their phenotype, they just shut off?  

Finally, my tomatoes are a couple weeks behind (at least) after a cool and cloudy April, but they are full of fruit, and the first full-sized harvest is maybe a week away. I've been harvesting tomatoes from plants that I bought from Lowes earlier this spring--mostly Celebrity. Not my favorite variety, but very early and easy to find as seedlings. As always, I'd recommend Tomande, Juliet, and SunGold as my "go-to" varieties here in Florida.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Plum Season Has Begun

Again, the first fruit I would recommend in Central Florida is the plum. The Gulf Series isn't large (I think there are four kinds), but they are so fast to mature, so prolific, and so tasty. I got mine from Just Fruits, but I noticed trees at the local nursery... Grafting is always an issue, though, so I tend to stay true to Just Fruits.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Plums, cucumbers and some Juliet tomatoes

I've been harvesting cucumbers for a couple weeks now, and plums for about a week. The generic pickling cucumbers in the picture are pretty good and prolific, but I planted them in a bit too much sun for Florida. The Tasty Jade I'm growing in a bit more shade in the back patch are much better, more prolific. Those cucumbers are amazing: Long, sweet, basically seedless. The skin is spineless, but I think still needs to be peeled, as it's quite bitter. Anyway, the plums are excellent Florida plums--the flesh is a tiny bit mealy, but very sweet. The skin is tart. So, perfect for pies, but a little suboptimal for eating out of hand. (Don't get me wrong! Far better than any supermarket plum, but you're never going to get the same quality of flesh in Florida for peaches and plums that you get up North! These are early-May plums!)

I only grow the Gulf series plums--I have five trees, and they are prolific and ripen over the course of at least five weeks. Anyone looking for dooryard fruit couldn't do better... They hit "maturity" after two, maybe three years. Much earlier than even my Earligrande peach... And, as anyone who grows fruit can attest, the earlier, the better in Florida.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

First cucumber of the season...

I wish I remembered what kind... Suyo? Probably Southern Delight... in any case, this "style" of cucumber (Asian long) is the best for Central Florida potage... I grow mine up rebar trellises, and embrace the idea that you cannot overwater a cucumber... Lots more on the way.

Later: Tasty Jade. Almost certain it's a Tasty Jade. What a vigorous, fruitful, and early plant! From Johnnys.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bleg: Rattlesnake Beans?

I'm out of Rattlesnake pole beans. Don't feel like spending the money for a packet with shipping and handling... I just forgot to save back some seed last year. I'll trade anyone out there some great Florida-friendly seeds (tomatoes? cukes? chard? kale? You name it!) for a couple handfuls of Rattlesnakes... Just drop me a note at!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Fortex beans... a great bean for Central Florida

First beans of the season. These are Fortex, a hybrid I think. Anyway HUGE beans (8" isn't uncommon) that stay tender. Very prolific and great tolerant of heat and drought.

From Johnnys...


Product ID: 34
Early, dependable pole bean with an extended harvest period.
Growing to over 11", Fortex produces extra long, round pods. Early and very productive, the beans may be picked at 7" in length for extra slender, "filet" beans. Dark green, firm-textured pods are completely stringless and delicious at all lengths, even after the seeds enlarge. Walnut brown seeds. Avg. 1,250 seeds/lb. Packet: 50 seeds.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Beets & Potatoes...

I really love Chioggia beets in the Florida garden... I've grown several kinds, including the standard Detroit. In the end, Chioggia do the best for me. My Slavic nature makes me wary of any beet that doesn't stain your hands red, but Chioggia are so pretty I can forgive them. Anyway, my potato culture is pretty simple: All winter long, anytime a potato looks hinky, I plug it into the row of leaf must and compost along one edge of my garden. I know it's time to scrabble when the potato leaves start to decline... Very productive crop, of course, even here in Florida...

Monday, March 31, 2014


Winterbore Kale

If I had to choose one winter crop to plant, it would be kale. Prolific, tough, cheap seeds, grows fast, repeat harvest, tasty, adaptable to many cuisines, and tolerant of heat (until May, at least...). I grow Tuscan (Lacinato) Kale and Winterbor Kale (from Johnnys). The Winterbor is probably a bit tenderer and a bit more prolific.  We love kale in any recipe that calls for spinach or chard--yeah, different flavor, different texture, but no big difference really. Since it's a fairly substantial green, it can be used in any recipe that calls for collards, too, with some slight adjustments for its faster cooking.

Finally, a real favorite in my household is any raw kale salad recipe. I like this one from Food & Wine... and the one below, which comes from (I think I'm getting this right) a Lebanese friend of a friend... It's so easy and really tasty.

Kale Salad - the King of Greens


1 large bunch black kale, torn into bite size pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
1 -2 lemon
1/3 cup currants or 1/3 cup other dried fruit
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 cup pecorino cheese, grated
1 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
salt and pepper


Tear kale pieces off the main fibrous center stem. Add the kale to a large mixing bowl, season with salt, pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Massage with your hands making sure to coat the kalewith oil and begin to break down the cell structure.

Grate the zest and squeeze the juice of the lemons over the massaged kale. Add the currants, toasted pine nuts, pecorino and toss to combine. Serve with a pinch of red chili flakes, if desired.

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 1 (34 g)
Servings Per Recipe: 6
Amount Per Serving: 6 servings Calories 156.6 Calories

Loquats... Recipes, processing.

Well, it's that time of year. A friend dropped off four gallons of loquats, just a small part of the harvest from one tree... Loquats are delicious, I think: A sort of citrusy apricot with mango. The flesh is very tender and dense, like the best apricot flesh.

They're very perishable. I suggest immersing them in a lot of water immediately after harvesting, and letting them sit in that water for a few hours, adding ice if the water doesn't feel cold to the touch. This cold water bath stops them from perishing and cleans them. (One reason I suspect they are so perishable: The stem wound tends to ooze when they're picked, and the sugary juice hastens spoilage. So, the water bath solves that problem. It also seems to plump them up a bit... Makes them easier to handle.)

The work is processing them: They are small and have large seeds and a seedcoat that need to be removed. Some people skin them, too: I don't think it's necessary, but it's not difficult to do. With a little practice, you can process--skin seed, and clean--a gallon of loquats in around twenty minutes. Slice the stem and blossom ends off, cut the fruit open from pole to pole, shift the knife back into your palm, and use your finger to remove the seeds and the seedcoat in one motion. Drop the seeds and ends into one bowl, and the fruit in another. It's nice to have a sliced lemon in the fruit bowl---from time to time, toss the fruit with the lemon juice and reduce the browning.

You can make whatever you'd make with apricots, more or less following the recipe. Personally, I don't like my fruit over-sweetened, and I find loquats to be rather mild and sweet. They lack much acid for balance. So, I add less sugar than most recipes call for (recipes that call for loquats or for apricots), and I like to add some lemon juice and zest for balance. Taste and adjust the jam, jelly, filling, etc., starting with a lot less sugar. (A rough guide: Half the weight of the processed loquat seems like just the right balance for me.)

Anyway, I discovered the wonders of a pressure cooker when dealing with lots of fruit: Just a splash of water in the pot, fill it to the "fill" line, and 5 minutes on high pressure got the seeded loquats cooked perfectly. The skins fall off the cooked loquats, so if you want to seed them, and are going to cook them anyway, then wait until after you cook them. In the (fuzzy!) picture below, you see some loquat puree I'm going to dry.

Two jars of "varenie"--a Polish/Russian way of preserving fruit that's not quite a jam: Think whole fruit in a sugar syrup. I used half the weight of the fruit in sugar, let the processed fruits sit for a couple hours, drained off the (copious) liquid, and boiled it to just at the soft-ball stage (134° on the candy thermometer). The syrup caramelized a bit, but the resulting product was really tasty. Oh, I threw in a few pieces of dried Meyer lemon zest and half a vanilla bean. Tasty! Like apricot jam, only better.

The seeds can be made into a nut liqueur (haven't tried that yet, but will!). The seeds are very flavorful, but, like apricot seeds, contain a bit of cyanide-producing compounds... Like bitter apricot pits, they have a culinary use in moderation.

I'll make a small batch of jelly from the juice. (The juice you see in the pics came from the skins and trimmings. IT's very sweet and very tasty.)

I'll probably use the remaining cooked fruit in a pie...

Adding: A friend tells me that in southern Italy, where these fruits are considered a regional delicacy (nespoli), that they're commonly served, pitted and halved, in a bowl of ice water... so maybe I'm onto something here with the water bath.