Gardening to a New Beat

Did you know that May is National Salad Month? Seriously? Who designates these little-known holidays?

Mrs. P knows her onions, so to speak, and observes both April and May as Bakersfield’s Salad Planting Months. And we’re not limiting ourselves to wimpy lettuce. No, Siree-Bob, we’re talking major veggie planting season. Right now, no delaying, no excuses allowed! Shovels ready and march! I don’t care if you plant in the ground, raised beds, or pots. Fabric plant bags are also a great alternative. Excellent for filling with soil, planting, harvesting, then emptying, folding up, and storing in the garage. Mix in a few bags of soil conditioner and start planting.

‘Mama Leone,’ is an old time paste tomato whose seeds were smuggled in through Ellis Island by Mama herself, sewn into her hem.
‘Mama Leone,’ is an old time paste tomato whose seeds were smuggled
in through Ellis Island by Mama
herself, sewn into her hem.

Tomatoes and cucumbers are just the beginning to a home garden. Think beans, beets, corn, eggplant, jicama, okra (oh, how Mrs. P loves okra’s gorgeous purple flowers), onions, peppers, squash (summer and winter), and Swiss chard. A really good veggie planting guide for our Central Valley climate can be found on White Forest Nursery’s website (whiteforestnursery.com). Choose one or more varieties of each vegetable. It’s fun to experiment. Don’t

limit yourself to the same-old-same-old tomato plants, for instance. Sure, ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Early Girl,’ and other hybrids are always dependable. Yet, the old heirloom varieties sing a siren song that’s irresistible. Oh,

you’re thinking, aren’t heirlooms more susceptible to diseases and nematodes? Mrs. P says, gotta risk it to get the biscuit! Most of us are now familiar with oldies like ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ and ‘Mortgage Lifter.’ They’re even sold in grocery stores! However, how ‘bout these ‘Looms?

Cucumbers aid digestion and rid toxins from one’s body. They also have a marvelous ability to ease skin irritations!
Cucumbers aid digestion
and rid toxins from one’s body.
They also have a marvelous
ability to ease skin irritations!

‘Mama Leone,’ an old time paste tomato whose seeds were smuggled in through Ellis Island by Mama herself, sewn into her hem.

‘New Yorker,’ for the garden that never sleeps; a variety that wastes no time at 63 days!

‘Polish Linguisa,’ shaped like a guess what? A sausage that tastes very tomato-ey.

‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green,’ which asks the question when is a green tomato ripe? Aunt Ruby said to squeeze because these orbs never turn red.

‘Green Zebra,’ which just shows that not all tomatoes are red. This one ripens yellow-green with exotic green stripes, shouting out, “Diversity should run free!”

Whichever tomatoes you choose to plant, keep in mind they not only need but demand at least eight hours of sunlight a day to thrive. Typically, six plants can supply a family of four with enough fruit to enjoy fresh and to use for canning or sauce. One caveat; there is a belief that tomatoes with bumps and bruises are excellent “canners.” Mrs. P differs. Bad tomatoes going in will mean bad tomatoes coming out, along with a lot of wasted time and effort. Use only your best tomatoes for canning.

Simply preserving jars of whole, peeled tomatoes is a slam dunk. With good planning, planting, sunny Bakersfield weather, and a little luck, you’ll have a bountiful tomato harvest, resulting in more fruit than you thought possible. This is a good thing.

My newest go-to recipe utilizing masses of tomatoes is homemade Bloody Mary Mix. You can use just about any type of tomato for this but it’s perfect for ‘Looms and beefsteak style tomatoes that are too juicy for sauce. It might seem odd, but kosher dill pickle juice makes an exceptional addition to this Bloody Mary Mix. It, too, solves a problem; what to do with leftover brine after you’ve eaten all the pickles. You can use a fancy juicer to juice your tomatoes or do what I do. Cook a big pot of coarsely chopped tomatoes until tender and press them through a fine sieve. Be sure to try this tasty recipe below.

Mrs. P’s Bloody Mary Mix

  • 1 qt. fresh tomato juice
  • 2 c. kosher dill pickle juice (note: there’s no vinegar or sugar in kosher dill pickles, just a brine of salt, water, garlic, dill)
  • 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 Tbsp. grated fresh horseradish
  • 2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/3 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tsp. ground celery seed
  • 2 Tbsp. hot sauce
  • 3/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper

Bring all ingredients to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer 5 minutes. Ladle mix into clean pint jars leaving 1/4” headspace. Close jars and process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes. This recipe can be doubled and so can the vodka!

Brining, fermenting, and pickling is all the trendy rage today, haven’t you noticed? It seems every new restaurant features their own take on this latest mania. Obviously, we home gardeners in Bakersfield already knew a thing or two about pickling. Whether it’s peppers, green tomatoes, cucumbers, or even kimchi (Asians call it wong bok but we know it’s really just good old Napa cabbage), we’ve preserved it. There’s a wonderfully simple recipe for making kosher-style garlic dill pickles that I’ve commandeered as my very own. It’s on page 444 of Mimi Sheraton’s book, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die (Workman Publishing, New York). It simplifies the whole process and when you taste these pickles you’ll think you’re in a New York deli.

Cucumbers are best grown in raised beds. There, I’ve said it! Second best are containers. Raised beds and containers improve drainage, warm up earlier, and increase the root zone depth. Work half to one cup of a complete fertilizer into each hole, spacing them three feet apart in all directions. Pop three or four cuke seeds into the holes and cover, patting down. After the seeds are up, thin the plants to one or two sturdy little fellows and stake. Which are the best varieties to plant? Well, there are slicers, picklers, chubbies, skinnies, bushers, viners, blondies, burpless, gherkins, hybrids, or heirlooms. You might want to check out their, ahem, sexual orientation first. Some cucumbers are Gynoecious (have all female flowers), some are Hermaphrodites (their flowers contain both male and female reproductive parts), others are Monoecious (have separate male and female flowers on the same plant), while still others are Parthenocarpic (have the ability to set fruit without pollination). For instance, ‘General Lee’ (an oft planted vigorous hybrid) is a GY (all female flowers which require insect pollination). ‘Patio Snacker,’ a crunchy favorite for containers, is an MO (has both girl and boy blossoms on the plant). ‘Excelsior,’ an organic cuke, is a PAT (originally developed to set fruit without pollination in greenhouses but now grown successfully outdoors). Novelty cukes are great to look at and taste in salads. ‘Mexican Sour Gherkin,’ ‘Miniature White,’ ‘Lemon,’ and ‘West India Gherkin’ are lots of fun to grow.

Whichever cucumbers you plant, be sure to hose them off every few days. This helps to keep down whitefly and other insect populations. Misshapen fruit is due to uneven watering. Try to stick to a watering schedule. Keep your cucumbers picked and they will keep producing. If, however, you don’t see that one sneaky cuke lurking in the rear that suddenly appears to have swallowed steroids, give it to someone who rears poultry. Chickens L-O-V-E huge cucumbers! Who else would tell you these things?

We’re familiar with the array of nutrients and antioxidants, including that potent Big Boy, Lycopene, in tomatoes. Cukes step up to the plate, too, on the health benefit scale. They aid digestion and rid toxins from one’s body. Cukes have a marvelous ability to ease skin irritations. A cut piece of cucumber will soothe burns. Incorporating cucumbers into your diet will aid with weight loss. They are exceptionally low in calories (only about eight calories per half cup).

This is why Mrs. P has proudly switched from anemic celery to nutritious cucumbers as swizzle stick garnishes in her Bloody Marys. One does what one must to maintain one’s vigor.

Images by flufi (onion), juefraphoto (zucchini) istock/thinkstock, tomnatogrowers.com (tomatoes), ocsanaden (tomatoes), ValentynVolkov (cukes) istock/thinkstock

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