Saturday, September 6, 2014

How To Save Tomato Seed

Bonny Best tomato
Tomato seeds are often gardeners' first foray into seed saving. If you've found a variety or two that you really like or that are hard to find, you may want to save some seeds to ensure they continue to be part of your garden. It is not difficult to save tomato seeds but there are a few important steps to the process.

First of all, you have hopefully planned for seed-saving when you planted your garden and have ensured that the varieties you want to save are sufficiently isolated from the rest of your tomato crops. “Sufficiently isolated” is a tricky and contentious term amongst tomato seed-savers: some people swear that they can grow different varieties of tomatoes side-by-side and have no cross-pollination; others advocate separating seed varieties by 150 ft or more. The key is the shape of the tomato flower. Although considered self-pollinating, tomato flowers can have their stigmas protruding past the anthers and, in these cases, they can be fairly easily cross-pollinated by insects visiting from plant to plant. To be safe, home gardeners saving seed just for themselves should distance the tomato varieties from which they intend to gather seed by at least 10 ft from other varieties.

Tomatoes are harvested for seed at the same time you would harvest them to eat – when they are fully ripe. Choose fruits that are most representative of the specific variety and harvest fruit from several plants to capture the best genetic profile. Next comes the fun part – fermentation! This removes the germination-inhibiting gel from around the seeds. It's a little messy and a little stinky, but increases germination substantially so it's well worth it.

Cut up ripe tomatoes into quarters and place them in a container. If you'd like to save the flesh for cooking, you can just squeeze the seeds and surrounding gel from the tomatoes into the container. Add enough cold water to cover the tomato mixture and stir well.
 Place the container in a cool, out of the way spot – you may want to put it in a really out of the way spot, as it does get quite smelly during the fermentation process. If desired, you can put a cloth over the container. Whatever you do, make sure you label the container with the name of the tomato, especially if you are saving seeds from more than one variety (they all look pretty similar when they're mashed up!). Over about three days, the tomato mixture will form a white, foamy “crust”; when the crust covers the entire container, your tomato mixture is ready for the next step.

Large jugs of tomato seed waiting to be cleaned

Skim off the crust and scoop out a lot of the tomato flesh that's at the top. Then pour most of the water out – the good seeds will have settled to the bottom. Add clean water and then pour that out. Continue to do this until all you have left is clear water with a layer of clean seeds at the bottom

. Pour off as much of the water as possible and put the seeds in a suitable place to dry. We have found that it's best to dry tomato seeds as quickly as possible or they'll start germinating – and as much as we appreciate their eagerness, they need to wait until the following spring! Dan's favourite method is to place the seeds in a plastic sieve and place the sieve in front of a fan. The fan, blowing at medium strength, should dry the seeds in a matter of hours. Do not use a metal sieve; it will blacken the seeds. This doesn't affect their viability but it makes them look ugly. You can also spread the seeds out in a single layer on a cookie sheet or plate – please don't use paper towel; the seeds will stick to it after they've dried and you'll have a devil of a time getting all those little bits of paper off.

When the seeds are completely dry, store them in a glass jar or paper seed envelope, label clearly, date and keep them in a cool, dark, dry environment until you're ready to plant next spring.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How Does Our Garden Grow?

Our property is ideally suited for seed production. Ten acres in total, it is heavily treed - conifers rim the entire property, there's a two-acre wood at the back and trees & shrubs dot the remaining acreage. This has enabled us to create a dozen seed-beds scattered about the place. Tucked in amongst the trees, shrubs and wildflowers, they enable the isolation of seed varieties from each other so as to keep them from cross-pollinating. This has worked well for us for a number of years, but as our need for larger quantities of seed has increased, we've run out of pockets to plant. We love and honour the trees but they do make it a challenge to find enough large, full sun space.
Some of our raised seed beds with the perennial herb garden in the background. 

Our Elfin Glade – a carpet of ferns flourishes beneath the protective canopy of the trees. (I'm quite sure this is where the faeries live.)

What to do? Use someone else's land! The opportunity came up this year to lease two acres of the neighbouring farm. Unused except for grazing for the last 40 years, it was able to be certified organic and positions us to be able to produce much more of our own seed. And, boy, does it have sun! With hardly a tree in sight, it is a stark contrast to our little bio-diverse nature sanctuary, but the space is much appreciated. 
Into the Woods - The gate we made to join the two properties runs through our two-acre woods. This is looking into it from the neighbouring farm.

We're using it this year to grow tomato and bean crops, interspersed with lots of other veggies for our own home use. Squash and sunflowers are being planted to distract pollinators with their large, beautiful flowers. 
The east end of the main garden next door – it's 500 ft. long. We've installed trellises for our tomato plants around the perimeter; beans are planted down the middle. This is the first time we've tried trellising our tomatoes - usually we just let them grow. We're interested in observing any differences in productivity and plant health. Note the mud – like our land, this field has a high water table and the recent heavy rains have had a significant impact. Dan keeps trenching it but it makes for tough slogging to work in it right now.

We hope that the combination of the two properties will meet our seed-production needs for the foreseeable future!



Friday, March 21, 2014

In the Midst of Winter, How Does Your Garden Grow?

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
- Albert Camus

I’m staring at a stick, poking up from a foot of snow. I think it used to hold ground cherries. Now it’s bare and stripped. This is the first time I’ve pulled my boots on, bundled up and headed out into the backyard to see what toll the raging winter has taken on my first garden.

I can make out the brief outline of the garden beds I painfully built last summer. Now they hold a delightful box of snow and dirt. “At least those walls held up,” I think.

It is bittersweet to look upon the garden. Part of me is filled with hope and potential. New season, new varieties to choose and new bounty to collect. “I’d love to grow Achocha this summer. I’ll stuff them with cheese.” Another part of me is melancholic. A muscle memory stirs - both figuratively and literally, cause I moved an awful lot of bricks to build these beds. But I created this garden with my husband, from whom I am now separated. Our house - our garden - is now on the real estate market. The thaw is coming, but I haven’t decided where I’m going. Will I have some green space come summer?

I laugh a little, thinking about my new garden and what I might grow. What would be appropriate for this transitory time in my life? “Lazy Housewife Bean,” I snort to myself. “Love Lies Bleeding, Moneymaker Tomato, Double Standard Corn, Red Self-Heal and Heartsease.”

I walk back to my sliding glass door to return to the warmth. My cat Rogue is ready to make a break for it as I put my hand on the door handle. “It’s spring,” she must be thinking, “let me out! I’ve been cooped up in here with you all winter!”

The next day, I’m telling my mother over a farmer’s lunch of pickled eggs and stew about my proposed garden plans. Her eyes narrow slightly - something she does when she’s choosing her words carefully - and she half-smiles. “That’s a bit of a cynical garden, don’t you think?” I teasingly ask if she had a better idea. “Cupid’s Dart. Love-in-a-Mist.” she shoots back. Point taken, Mum. Dad pipes in now. He’s jazzed and thinks we should make a new collection. “What, like the The Single Girl’s Garden Collection?” He’s chasing this idea now and wonders how to make it. “It’ll be great,” I say, egging him on. “I mean, each packet only needs one or two seeds, right? You’re only cooking for one.” He laughs, but then stops to honestly consider it. “Not happening.” Mum says, putting a much needed period at the end of all this tomfoolery.

But the conversation gets me thinking. Just like in The Secret Garden, all I want is a little bit of earth to plant a seed and watch it grow (I’m definitely singing this song in my head right now as I type this). A touch saccarine, maybe even cliche, but the thought of planning my next garden - wherever it will be - is an exciting one. I am looking forward to Celeriac Soup, with ingredients from my own green space like Evergreen Bunching Onions and Purple Top White Globe Turnips. And you know what? Forget the Forget-Me-Nots. Because gardening can be my therapy - along with wine, coffee and chocolate. So in the midst of all my Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherries, I’ll sneak in a Sweet Chocolate Pepper.

- Rachel

Monday, January 28, 2013

I'd Hack That!

I'm a food hacker. I love to take a dish and find out how I can hack it into healthfulness.  With the myriad of diseases and food "sensitivities" (which sounds so delicate, but we all know what ugly terror these little sensitivities bring) that are plaguing us humans, we've all been forced to get a little creative with our dinners. The other night, I successfully (read: didn't burn it, totally ate it) hacked a Shepherd's Pie - I substituted the ground beef for mushrooms and edamame and changed the mashed potatoes to mashed cauliflower and turnip. It was delicious! I honestly believe you don't have to "miss" anything when you change the way you eat. Any favourite recipe can be hacked. I've included some of my favourite recipes that I've collected from our Pinterest board that offer a different take on a classic dish.

Spinach Burgers 
(or Spurgers, maybe...? No? Come on...)

Let's be honest. I like me a good ol' fashioned burger. I'm pretty sure the folks down at Five Guys Burgers know me by toppings "No onion? Extra mushrooms? Welcome again, my friend."  But there is only so much I can take before the chronic meat sweats kick in. That's why I love these Spurgers. Yes, I will keep using that term until you use it too. 

Spaghetti Squash Boats with Meatballs 
(or "Cheatballs", using Quinoa or Veggie Ground Round)

Where I grew up, there was a stream that ran the length of the street where our home was located. Every spring, when it thawed, my family had the Annual Spaghetti Boat Run. My brother and I would take hollowed out spaghetti squash halves and create our own unique boat, complete with masts and flags, and stick-person crew. Then we would put them in the water and race them to the bottom of the hill.  Winner got bragging rights.  You, too, can get bragging rights by making this dish. 

Oven Baked Zucchini Fries 
(with Heirloom Tomato Ketchup!)

These are AMAZING. They taste kinda buttery, too, and if you add Parmesan cheese, then they taste buttery AND cheesy. You can't lose. If I wanted to be SUPER healthy, I would serve these with my Spurgers. 

Cauliflower & Turnip Mashed Fauxtatoes 
(It sure BEETS the original. That's one for all you veggie lovers out there. I'm here all night.)

I make this all the time. Sometimes, if I'm feeling fancy, I'll add a beet so that they turn this awesome pinky colour which is really attention-getting, especially for a dinner party where you want your friends to be impressed and jealous of your mad kitchen skills. 

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Cottage Gardener is now certified as a Bee Friendly Farm!

The Cottage Gardener is now certified as a Bee Friendly Farm!

Why did we decide to take this step? We've always grown organically and encouraged bees and other pollinators to visit our gardens. But we've noticed over the last few years that we are seeing fewer and fewer bees - both honeybees and bumblebees - visiting our crops and gardens. Upon doing a bit of investigation, we've discovered that all pollinators (and there are over 1000 species of pollinators in Canada!) are under serious threat. They're losing their natural habitats and their food sources due to increasing urbanization, industrial farming, monoculture and the increasing reliance on pesticides and herbicides. Bees are responsible for pollinating a large percentage of our food crops, so a loss for the bees is also a dangerous loss for us.

The Bee Friendly Farming initiative is designed to draw attention to the plight of our pollinators and encourage people to provide supportive habitats for bees and other pollinators. It's not difficult - there are many simple steps you can take to make your own garden more bee-friendly. I found it interesting that, for example, single-bloom flowers are better than double-bloomed ones and that bees' favourite flower colours are white, yellow and blue. Heirloom and native plants are particularly appropriate for pollinator plantings because of their flowers' simplicity, fragrance and - believe it or not - their pollen. Yes, modern breeders are starting to produce pollen-less flowers! Don't go there. Also be sure to have plants that flower in all three major seasons so that the bees have a constant source of food. Leaving parts of your land undisturbed encourages native bees as the vast majority are ground nesters.

Want to find out more? Visit Pollination Canada's site at  for some great resource information.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Plant Profile: Ground Cherry

"Aunt Molly's Ground Cherries"

The first frosts of the season have arrived, the last of the seed crops have been pulled and are currently drying in the greenhouse and our ground cherries have finally succumbed to the cold. How I'll miss my daily forays out to them, peering under each plant for the fallen, ripe fruit nestled in the straw. Ground cherries have to be one of my favourite plants in the whole gardening world! What's not to love about a plant that's easy to grow, is largely disease-and-pest-free, produces prodigious quantities of incredibly tasty fruit and takes all the guesswork out of when to harvest?

Yet, more often than not, I'm met with blank stares when I offer it up to others. “What's that?” they ask suspiciously. Well, I tell them - it tastes really good; don't eat the husk; it's kind of like a tomato but not; try it – you'll like it! And they invariably do.

The ground cherry, also known as a husk tomato or cape gooseberry, is actually a relative of the tomato. Native to the eastern U.S., it has been cultivated in North America since the 17th C and was a staple in the cuisine of the Pennsylvania Dutch, who used them in soups, pies and preserves. I have never baked with them, as I like them much too much fresh from the garden. The tiny little 1/2” fruits have a solid flesh and are incredibly sweet. Each fruit develops inside a papery husk that turns brown as the fruit ripens. Because it's protected by the husk, the fruit is largely blemish-free and, once harvested, will store for several weeks inside the husk so don't remove it until you're ready to eat. The fruit has another unique characteristic: when it's ripe, it falls off the plant and onto the ground (hence the name). Harvesting is so easy – each day, I make the rounds of my plants and search under them for the fallen fruit. I find it's best to lay a solid layer of straw under and around the plants; that way, the fruits don't land on the ground and get dirty.

Ground cherries are prolific producers: 1 – 2 plants should suffice a family. The only real maintenance they require, I've found, is to watch for potato beetles. These insects like all members of the Solanaceae family and ground cherries are no exception. In early summer, they'll lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and the hatched larvae proceed to feed on the leaves voraciously. However, I've found that a daily inspection of the plants for a couple of weeks will break the cycle. I turn over each leaf and remove those I find with either eggs or larvae. I then drop the leaves on the ground and grind them into the ground (I wear rubber boots for this, being the squeamish sort). The effort is worth it - once the cycle is broken, I find no other problems with the plants; they basically take care of themselves. Ours did well this summer despite a severe drought and were still producing loads of fruit until the hard frosts.

These plants are sprawlers, growing to 2' and spreading to 4', so give them a bit of room. They don't need staking, preferring to spread out over the ground. They like full sun. Like tomatoes, they need to be started from seed indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. They're not frost-tolerant, so transplant them outdoors after all danger of frost is over. 'Aunt Molly's', the variety we offer, has orange-yellow fruits and has a taste reminiscent of tangerines. It's renowned for its flavour and productivity!
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Monday, October 1, 2012

Nature vs. Nurture, or "Back off, bunny. Get your own garden."

When I first moved out to the 'burbs, I was so excited to finally have some green space! I was even more excited to discover a little baby bunny living underneath our deck – I fed it carrots and lettuce. And then there were these adorable squirrels and chipmunks! Such delightful creatures – I fed them cashews and sunflower seeds. One night, I looked out my dining room window to see a fat raccoon sauntering down the sidewalk without a care in the world. “Keep on keeping on, little scrounger,” I thought with a smile.

How naive I was.

I see these woodland creatures differently now. They are mini mongrels, set to eat my Orach and steal my squashes while I sleep.

At first, I noticed dig marks in my freshly seeded beds. Then I noticed that my turnip greens looked nibbled on. But the final straw came when I noticed deep gashes in the skin of my baby Delicata squash. That's too far. You do not get in the way of a woman and her winter squashes.

The first thing I tried was to put up barriers. I collected sticks and branches and laid them over top of my containers to try to deter the dirty little culprits. Surprisingly, this was somewhat successful. It kept the raccoons at bay long enough for the little seeds to germinate and stand on their own. For the starter plants I had (pepper and ground cherry), I put tomato cages over the small plants.

But the dig marks in the raised beds were more tricky. I had heard that bone meal was a good deterrent, because it made the ground smell like death to the animal nose and, naturally, that's not very appetizing. I generously tossed the bone meal into my gardens. I was happy to discover that it did not smell like death to the human nose. It seemed effective for about a week. But once my squashes in particular started to bear fruit, it was too tempting to the raccoons and bunnies and other little nibblers. They braved the stench of death and carried forth to scratch up my squashes.

Finally, I acquired some row cover – a thin, breathable, opaque covering that basically acts is a blanket for my gardens. Bonus points: it raises the temperature of my raised beds by a couple of degree, says Dad, so my late season plantings have a bit more time to cook.

So far, using the row cover has been the most effective way for dealing with my hungry late-night visitors. It's my own fault, to a degree. I encouraged these little beasts, with my sweet voice and delicious vegetable choices (because as we all know, heirlooms taste a gazillion times better than any of the hybrid, grocery-store veggie fare).

Hopefully the woodland creatures and I can share this green space peacefully... as long as they leave my squashes alone.