Today I'm going to start a series on the different vegetables you can grow, and the obvious one to start with is tomatoes.
Just about anyone who thinks about growing a garden, regardless of how small, thinks about tomatoes first. And as it happens, these are also among some of the healthiest food that you can grow.
One of the best known benefits of eating tomatoes is their Lycopene content. Lycopene is a vital anti-oxident that helps fight against cancerous cell formation as well as reducing high cholesterol. Ongoing research is proving that tomatoes may prevent serum lipid oxidation and reduce the risk of macular degenerative disease as well.
And studies have found that when tomato products are heated the bioavailability of Lycopene actually increases, which is great news for all you tomato sauce lovers.
There are a huge variety of tomatoes available now, so it's important to think a bit about how you want to use them before you choose which you will grow.
If you want them mainly for salads, a couple of cherry tomato plants will keep producing all through the summer and well into the fall, and probably give you a ton of green tomatoes to keep well into the winter as well.
If you like freezing or canning your tomatoes to make sauce or other tomato dishes, then plum or Roma tomatoes are your best bet. These are more dense in texture and have been the preferred tomato for Italian home growers for decades.
And if you just want a few juicy tomatoes for your summer barbecue burgers, you can't go wrong with a beefsteak plant that will give you lovely huge tomatoes that slice beautifully.
A few slices of these with some sliced red onions and fresh lettuce from your garden will turn any burger into a feast.
Spacing : In a square foot garden you will need a 2 foot square for one bush tomato plant. If you are growing a vine you will need a 12 inch square.
When it comes to planting your tomatoes you have a lot of options.
These are just as easily grown in pots as they are in a garden. You can start them from seed in a sunny windowsill and there are a variety of different pots available for this. You can use plastic starter pots that you fill with a planting mix, or you can get pellets that expand with just the addition of water which is a great no-fuss method. Again, make sure that whatever growing medium you choose is organic and not full of chemical fertilizers.
The easiest method is of course to get plants from your garden centre and plant them. Again, you have a lot of options. You can plant them in your garden, but many people grow tomatoes very successfully in pots, which makes them a great choice for apartment gardeners.
Some people even plant their tomatoes straight into a bag of growing mix and this works quite well because it gives the roots room to spread out and the stem can then get thick and strong.
The thing to remember is that tomatoes are hot weather vegetables, so you don't want to be putting them outside until there is no more chance of frost in your area. Also, because as you can see they grow very tall, you have to provide them with some kind of support. Wire cages are available at all garden centres, and you can also just use bamboo poles as shown above.
Here is a video on how to plant tomatoes :
Growing tomatoes is relatively easy. Here are a few videos to get you started.
Harvesting & Storing
Once your tomatoes start ripening you will have a hard time keeping up with them, so be prepared to check your plants every day. If you don't, the majority will go to feed the bugs and slugs.
This is easy to do if you've thought ahead how you will deal with your harvest. Obviously eating them is the first priority, but you will soon find that you have way too many ripening at once. As well, it's nice to put some away. There is nothing like heating some of your own tomatoes in the dead of winter.
Freezing is the easiest option. A lot of people blanch and remove skins first but personally I've found that's a lot of trouble and not really necessary. If you use them in cooking it's easy enough to fish the skins out later if they really bother you, but I've found that the skins on my organic home grown tomatoes are not a problem.
Invest in a box of medium freezer bags. I prefer the ones with the zipper because I think they are a bit sturdier. And I recommend medium not large because you don't want to freeze more than you can use at one time.
Then all you do is wash your tomatoes, cut of the stem end, quarter, and throw into the bag. If you cook small meals, you can always flash freeze on a cookie sheet first, that way you will be able to remove as many or as few at a time as you need.
Another great way to store tomatoes is to oven bake them first. This adds an extra step but will give you that great fire-roasted flavour that you pay so much for in the store.
Just cut your tomatoes in half and lay them out on a cookie sheet, cut face down. (If yours are huge slice them thickly instead.) Then put them into a 250'F oven and just forget about them for a couple of hours. They will slowly roast and dry a bit at the same time. Check them every hour or so and remove when they have shriveled but are not completely dry. This is the best stage for using in sauces and cooked dishes. Once they have cooked, pack in freezer bags and freeze as above.
And you can also dry your tomatoes. You can do this outside on a sunny deck, covering them with cheesecloth to keep the bugs off, or in a VERY slow oven - We're talking 175'F. If you do them this way I suggest putting them in during the day, then turning off the oven and leaving them in overnight. This way they get nice and dry.
At this point I think the best way to store them is in olive oil - with or without a few hot peppers added - and definitely with a few fresh basil leaves between the layers. Make sure all your tomatoes are covered in oil because this is the preservative. This won't be wasted because the oil itself is great for cooking or using in salad dressing. You can keep these in your pantry, just make sure the tomatoes are always covered with oil.
I doubt that anyone needs a primer on how to use tomatoes, but here are a few ideas anyway.
Obviously large juicy slices of beefsteak tomato are terrific with burgers. A variation of this is the tomato Caprese salad as seen at www.myrecipes.com. A Caprese salad is just tomatoes and cheese slices topped with olive oil and basil leaves. Add a couple of burger patties and you have a very substantial meal.
Quartered tomatoes with some chopped basil and salt and pepper make a terrific basic side dish to any barbecue summer meal.
As for what to do with the tomatoes you freeze or can, here are several great recipes. My Cioppino (Italian Seafood Stew) is a great way to use them.
So is my Chicken Cacciatorie
And lastly here is my famous Italian Tomato Sauce with Coconut Flour Gnocchi. This has been a hit at many a dinner party and is a wonderful way to serve a lot of friends. Add a large green salad and a few bottles of red wine and you have the makings of quite a party.