Sow Fearless


Too Many Tomatoes! Ideas on Preserving the Tomato Harvest

When I think of summer, one of the first things that comes to mind is the taste of vine-ripened tomatoes, straight from the garden, often gobbled up before I even get back to the kitchen. Much like everyone else, when I first started our vegetable garden, tomatoes were at the top of the list. That first year, I purchased a few plants from a local nursery and it wasn’t long before I was growing all of my own transplants from seed. The number of varieties I grew quickly multiplied. It’s easy to go overboard when starting tomatoes from seed — there are just too many enticing new varieties to try in addition to the tried-and-true favorites that must be included in the tomato bed each year (I wouldn’t be without Brandywine!).

Here in Southern Ontario, the tomato harvest usually begins in late July. Anyone that’s grown tomatoes knows the drill. The harvest starts with a single cherry tomato or perhaps an early salad type, picked off the vine and eaten right there in the garden. I’ll admit, I’m a bit selfish when it comes to that first tomato — thoughts of sharing don’t even enter my mind.

A day or two later, another tomato ripens up…and then the pace quickens. Some years, it seems as if I go from harvesting a small bowlful — just enough for a mixed salad — to a full basket in the blink of an eye. By the middle of August, even a basket isn’t enough and out comes a box. It’s at this point that the focus changes from fresh eating to preserving the harvest.

HG - Basket of Tomatoes 

This year I grew 15 varieties of tomato (25 plants in total). Cherry, salad, paste and slicing — they are all represented. While paste tomatoes are usually top of mind when it comes to preserving the harvest, I use all of the varieties I grow, from cherries all the way up to large slicers.

Three basic methods are used to preserve tomatoes: Canning, freezing and dehydrating. Within these methods, however, there are a multitude of options.

Canning Tomatoes

Benefits: This is the method that usually comes to mind first. After the initial learning curve, canning tomatoes is relatively simple and doesn’t require expensive equipment such as a pressure canner, which is a big plus. The biggest advantage of canning is, without doubt, the fact that it allows for long-term storage at room temperature.

HG - First Attempt At Canned Tomatoes

Downsides: Although you don’t need a pressure canner, you do need to purchase proper canning jars and lids. Also, I found that a canning pot was a necessary purchase due to it's overall size. Typical pots found in most kitchens, even stock pots, are not tall enough for processing anything but the smallest jars as you need at least 1 inch of water covering the jars plus an additional 2-3 inch allowance for the boiling water. Canning is also a lot of work — it’s not something you can squeeze into a spare hour in the afternoon. Be prepared to set aside a few hours each time you do a “canning session.” And lastly, since canning is so time consuming, it’s not the best choice if you only have a small quantity of tomatoes to preserve. In my case, anything less than 3 or 4 pounds of tomatoes would not be worth breaking out the canning pot for.

Plain tomatoes can be canned whole, diced or pureed. These are the most versatile staple in my pantry as they can be transformed into anything from chili to gazpacho. This trio essentially replaces any form of canned tomato that you would purchase at the grocery store.

When you need a can of tomato sauce for a quick meal, nothing beats the feeling of reaching into your pantry and pulling out a jar of homegrown deliciousness. Unlike plain tomatoes, tomato sauce is cooked down into a thicker consistency and is seasoned with herbs and spices, to create a “ready to use” sauce, a real time-saver in the kitchen. Beyond the traditional spaghetti topping, tomato sauce can also make quick work of a myriad of other dishes such as stuffed peppers, eggplant parmigiana or lasagna, just to name a few.

Salsa is a favorite at our house and there are so many variations! Chunky or smooth, spicy or mild, different combinations of herbs and spices – the sky is the limit. Want a quick, healthy after-school snack that the kids will love and is easy enough for them to prepare themselves?  Grab a jar of salsa and pour it into a bowl. Then cut a whole grain Greek pita into wedges to scoop it up– done.

A cautionary note:  While it may be tempting to use grandma’s canning recipe or the one in your mom’s cookbook from the 70’s, safety procedures have changed quite a lot over the years so it’s a good idea to stick to the most recent canning recommendations provided by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The same thing goes for salsa – stick with recipes written in the past few years from trusted sources.

Freezing Tomatoes

Benefits: Firstly, there is no processing. This is not only a huge time saver but it also minimizes the amount of time spent standing in front of a hot stove in the middle of summer. Secondly, you can freeze raw tomatoes that have not been touched by the heat of processing which means that you can make sauces that have a “fresh” tomato flavor in the middle of winter (more on that below). And lastly, no specialized equipment is required — all you need are storage containers and/or freezer storage bags, which most of us already have in our kitchen.

Downsides: First and foremost is the issue of freezer space — you need a lot of it if you want to freeze a good chunk of your harvest. Secondly, a freezer uses energy, which costs both in terms of dollars and the environment (although environmentally, it’s a far cry from the inputs needed to produce those jars of sauce at the grocery store, not to mention the bland tomatoes sitting in the produce section in January). And while a power outage will have zero impact on the canned tomatoes in your pantry, the contents of your freezer may not be so lucky.

As mentioned above, you likely already have containers that can be used to store your freezer tomatoes and sauces. Choose container sizes based on how much sauce you typically use in recipes. I pack purees and sauces in 1, 2 and 3 cup portions. And while plastic containers and zipper bags are the most commonly used vessels for freezer storage, freezer-safe glass containers are now available as well – just make sure to allow for plenty of head-room for expansion otherwise you may have an explosive mess to clean up!

Tomato puree/sauce is prepared in exactly the same way as when canning without the water bath. If you want to skip the stove top altogether, roasting tomatoes in the oven and then whizzing them in the blender also works and concentrates the flavor beautifully. Once the sauce is made, I let it cool in the refrigerator overnight before packing it up for the freezer. The great thing about freezing is that you can add practically anything you want to the sauce without compromising safety, as would be the case with canning.

I LOVE frozen raw, chopped tomatoes, especially for making “fresh” tomato sauce (check out the mini-recipe at the end of this post). The fact that the tomatoes are not subjected to prolonged cooking gives them a completely different flavor. Preparing them for freezing does take a bit of work up front but the convenience of grabbing a packet of chopped, fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes when I’m making a sauce is worth it. For this method, the tomatoes are cored, peeled and chopped before being packaged into one or two cup portions. Do note that freezing changes the structure of raw tomatoes and they will lose their firmness and be liquidy when defrosted. Once they spend a couple of minutes in a hot skillet, however, you would be hard pressed to taste the difference between fresh or frozen tomatoes.

If, like me, you often end up with an avalanche of cherry tomatoes just as other delicious varieties are also ripening up, this is the perfect way of preserving them. I use roasted cherry tomatoes much like I would sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. They are amazing on pizza, in soups, in sandwiches, pureed into dips — you name it. They are so good, I’ll often sneak one (or ten!) as they are cooling on the baking sheet. For this method, you slice the cherry tomatoes in half, lay them (cut-side up) in a shallow baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and whatever combination of herbs you desire. Bake for about 2 hours at 225 degrees F or until they are somewhat shriveled and caramelized around the edges. Allow to cool, then place in a container and freeze. Some people freeze them in a single layer on a baking sheet before transferring them to a freezer storage bag but I find that if you pack them loosely, this extra step isn’t necessary.

HG - Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

I first heard of freezing whole tomatoes from my aunt who purchases vine-ripened tomatoes when they are in season, then plonks them in the freezer, to use later. One of the best things about this method, other than the fact that it requires zero effort up front, is that the tediousness of peeling the tomato when you use it is virtually eliminated — simply run the frozen tomato under warm water and the skin slips right off. I can’t tell you how amazed I was the first time I tried this — and I’ve been spreading the word ever since.

Dehydrating Tomatoes (aka Sun-Dried Tomatoes without the ‘Sun’)

The final method that I use when preserving the tomato harvest is dehydrating, the cheaters version of sun-dried tomatoes when you don’t live in a climate that is conducive to drying tomatoes in the sun. Dehydrated tomatoes can be used in exactly the same way as sun-dried tomatoes (i.e. soaked & chopped before adding to a dish). Or how about creating your own “sun-dried tomatoes in oil” by tossing a handful into a jar of olive oil. I also add them to soups, stews or any liquidy concoction that will re-hydrate them during the cooking process.

Benefits: Dehydrated tomatoes are shelf stable for up to 6 months & no special containers necessary for storage. You can also pack a LOT of tomatoes into a small space as they shrink significantly when dehydrated. Lastly, there is virtually no prep other than rinsing and slicing.

Downsides: The biggest drawback to dehydrating is, of course, the cost of the dehydrator but, as with most things, you can start small — a relatively inexpensive unit can be had for less than $100. It’s up to you to decide whether the cost is worth it. Dehydrators can also be bulky and heavy; I have an Excalibur unit which I would rather not have to move around, so it has a permanent spot in the basement.

When dehydrating tomatoes, I slice or quarter them or, in the case of cherry tomatoes, cut them in half. You can add seasonings if you like, but I generally leave them plain which allows for greater flexibility when I use them. How long they take to dry can vary significantly depending on the dehydrator, the humidity levels, the type of tomato (low moisture tomatoes such as Roma work best, of course), and the size of the tomato slices/halves. And lastly, when you dry your first batch, be sure to take notes for next time. You may think you’ll remember what temperature you used and how long you set the timer for but you won’t — trust me on that.

Tomatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables in the garden, and nowhere is this more evident than in the myriad of ways in which they can be preserved. No matter how much (or little) effort you put into preserving the tomato harvest, one thing is certain. You and your family will appreciate the taste of summer come January as you crack open that jar of salsa or whip up a batch of “fresh” tomato sauce.

My Super-Quick “Fresh” Tomato Sauce

My go-to fresh tomato sauce is not only delicious, it’s ready in the same amount of time it takes you to boil a pot of water and cook some pasta! Sauté chopped onions or shallots until just starting to caramelize, then add frozen, chopped “fresh” tomatoes, a bit of salt, pepper and whatever herbs you choose. Let simmer for a few minutes until most (but not all) of the liquid has evaporated, then finish off with a touch of cream (either half & half or full fat) and voila — so delicious & totally different from traditional, slow simmered sauce.

Seed Catalogues - Using Them to Their Best Advantage

Margaret MishraWe are in the depths of winter, and it’s snowing outside. As large, fat flakes fall on the ground, one of my favorite ways to pass the time is to snuggle up with a stack of seed catalogues. With pen in hand, there are hundreds of temptations to be had, many more than my budget or garden can accommodate.

The plants and seeds on offer are the backbone of a seed catalogue. They do, however, also contain a wealth of information that goes far beyond pictures of gorgeous blooms and colorful vegetables with enticing descriptions. In fact, some of the most valuable tidbits of growing info that I’ve gleaned over the years were found between the pages of a catalogue. For example, did you know that spinach is not only sensitive to the heat but also to the number of daylight hours?  Neither did I…until I read it in a seed catalogue.

There are a few things that I always keep an eye out for. Every catalogue is different, and some are more detailed than others, so if I don’t see the information I’m looking for in one catalogue, I may very well find it in another.

Sun/Shade/Partial Shade

All plants require a certain amount of sun, and most catalogues use symbols to indicate light requirements. This makes identifying plants that will work in a particular situation so much easier. I’m one of those people that wants to grow everything, so scanning a page and focusing only on those plants that meet my conditions can really narrow things down. It’s important to remember that the sunlight recommendations may differ based on the catalogues geographic region – while a local catalogue may list a particular plant as requiring full sun, a catalogue from a more southern climate may classify it as a candidate for a partially shady location.

Annual/Perennial/Bi-ennial/Zone

The hardiness zone listed for a particular plant should be the same regardless of which catalogue it’s listed in*, but whether or not a plant is considered an annual or perennial may vary. Also, a plants aggressiveness and it’s propensity to be invasive can be very different depending on location. Case in point – I grew Cardiospermum halicacabum (Love in a Puff, pictured below) this past summer – a lovely, delicate vine with puffy green seed pods. This plant is considered an invasive weed in the southern U.S., but there’s no fear of that in our climate.

*One note about zones in North America – Canadian hardiness zones are calculated differently from U.S. zones (and therefore, the zone listed in a U.S. catalogue will be different from one in a Canadian catalogue). For a very rough conversion, add 1 to the U.S. zone to approximate the Canadian zone (e.g. US zone 5 = Canadian zone 6).

Love in a Puff
Cardiospermum halicacabum. Photo by Margaret Mishra.

Size/Shape

Knowing how big or tall a plant will get can ultimately affect your decision to purchase the seeds/plants. Consider the case of beans – in order to know where best to locate them in my garden, I need to know if they are a vining or bush type. Similarly, when I grew zinnias this past year, some of them were 3’ tall while others topped out at 6”. Which size I choose is dependent on where I will be planting them.

Moisture Requirements

This is one bit of information that some people ignore altogether. I’ve heard people say that if a plant needs more water, they’ll just water more; if it needs less, they will hold back. This strategy, however, may not work in all situations, especially if your bed is perpetually wet or dries out quickly. Things can also get tricky when you place thirsty plants next to those that like it on the dry side. When planning a garden, it will make your life much easier – and your plants will be much happier – if plants with similar moisture preferences are grouped together. This not only helps with maintenance, but some plants will simply not tolerate the dry/wet conditions required by others. No matter what you do, chances are that one of those will suffer.

Days to Harvest/Flower

These numbers are estimates, and a lot depends on where you are located, which is why a range is often indicated, instead of a specific number. When you take into account our erratic weather patterns in the past few years, it becomes even more difficult to predict the timing of blooms or a harvest. Where I find these numbers most helpful is in making comparisons within a particular variety. For example, if I want to start harvesting tomatoes as early as possible, I’ll make sure to include at least one variety that has a quicker maturity compared to others. It may not mature in the stated number of days in the catalogue, but it will likely be one of the first to bear fruit in the garden. Days to harvest is particularly important if you are gardening in a short-season area as it can mean the difference between an empty or full harvest basket. Also note that for veg that are normally seeded indoors then transplanted outside a few weeks later (e.g. tomatoes & peppers), “days to harvest” refers to the number of days after transplanting outdoors, not from seeding.

When & Where to Sow

This is one of the most valuable pieces of information in a catalogue. When to sow is often linked to the first frost date or another site specific variable such as “sow when the ground can be worked”. This makes it a very useful bit of information, regardless of where you live since the actual “date” is based on your specific area. This is also where you will find out if the seeds need to be sown ahead of time indoors, or if they can be sown directly into the ground (for some, you can do both). If you don’t have the desire or space to grow seedlings indoors, this detail is obviously important to know before you place an order.

Informative Seed Catalogues
Photo by Margaret Mishra.

Other Useful Information

Every catalogue is different in terms of the type and thoroughness of information provided, but other bits of info that I look for include:  how to sow the seeds, if the seeds require special treatment (e.g. stratification), duration of blooms, and if supports are needed. Many catalogues also contain historical information on heirloom varieties (I’m often enticed to purchase a variety simply based on an intriguing backstory!) and will specify if a particular variety is an heirloom, open-pollinated, or hybrid. If you plan to save seeds, this is an important distinction. These days, many catalogues also have a special symbol that indicates if a flowering plant is pollinator friendly or not. I’m always on the lookout for plants that will attract pollinators, so this is one thing that I keep an eye out for. If I’m undecided between two plants and one is listed as pollinator friendly, this will tip the scales in its favor.

Don’t Skip the Introductory Paragraph

Don’t go straight to the individual variety descriptions, skipping past the paragraph that is just underneath the plant heading. That introductory paragraph is usually teeming with good info about a species' habits and preferred growing environment, often containing information about conditions that a plant doesn’t tolerate well, which is just as important as knowing what it does prefer.

“Bad” is Good

When it comes to plant descriptions, “bad” is actually a good thing. The catalogues that I appreciate (and trust) the most are those that provide realistic descriptions, even if this reflects negatively on the plant. When every seed on offer is accompanied by a glowing narrative with not a single negative word, I become skeptical. If a particular plant is aggressive, finicky to grow, or the seeds are difficult to germinate, I want to know that!

The Bottom Line

Don’t gloss over the details included in seed catalogues, even if you’ve been growing that particular plant or veg for a long time. Some catalogues are so useful, I keep them in a magazine holder on my bookshelf, right alongside my gardening books. You just never know what tidbit of information hiding in those words could increase your understanding of a particular plant and make your gardening experience that much better.

Making Pure Vanilla Extract

When I was growing up in the 70’s, there was one ubiquitous baking ingredient that was always in our kitchen cabinet - vanilla extract. I didn’t think that much about this solitary ingredient, a teaspoon or two of which was added to practically every dessert.

Once I was out on my own, I delved into the world of cooking with enthusiasm. This was also around the time when cooking shows really started to take off…and I began to hear about the wonders of real vanilla extract. All of a sudden, I realized the importance of that one word descriptor that was on the bottle of extract in my mom’s cabinet – “Artificial”.

Of course, I needed to find out what all the fuss was about so on my next trip to the grocery store, I searched the baking aisle….and there it was. A small bottle of the real stuff, aka “pure vanilla extract”, stood beside a large bottle of the artificial. I had to do a double take on the price, though – for a minute I thought they had placed the bottles in the wrong spots as the real extract in its teeny tiny bottle (probably one quarter the size of the artificial) was twice as expensive. Say what?  I read the details on the shelf labels and they were indeed correct.

Once I brought it home and opened the bottle, however, I got it. I didn’t even need to use the extract in a recipe to experience the difference. The scent was incredible and oh so different from the chemically smell of the artificial – a true night and day difference.

My philosophy is that homemade is always best so it didn’t take long before I ventured into making my own vanilla extract. And another ‘wow’ moment ensued. Everyone that smells my vanilla “homebrew” is floored….it’s just so incredible!

And the best part?  It’s beyond easy. You only need two ingredients, zero special equipment (you don’t even need to purchase a bottle!) and it takes about 2 minutes to make. Literally. No, I’m not kidding. The hardest part about making vanilla extract is the wait as it does need to “steep” for a few weeks.

 

How to Make Vanilla Extract

Vanilla Extract copy

Vanilla extract is a two ingredient recipe. The shopping list?  Vanilla beans and vodka. That’s it. Some people use rum but I feel that vodka has a cleaner taste. If you are a rum fan, however, you can give that a go too. The great thing about creating your own is that you can customize it to your own tastes and preferences.

The Vodka

When I created my first batch of extract, instead of using the vodka that I already had at home, I perused the liquor store shelves and purchased a small bottle of a popular brand. Truth be told, I’m not a drinker so any brand was fine by me and my choice was governed more by the bottle – its esthetic appeal and suitability to hold vanilla extract - than anything else.

Since vanilla extract is used in teaspoon portions, you don’t need a large bottle taking up space in your kitchen cabinet. For me, a small bottle around 250ml/8oz in size works well. The one thing that I would insist on when it comes to the bottle, however, is that it be glass rather than plastic, as the latter does degrade over time.

After the initial purchase which provides me with both the alcohol and a vanilla extract bottle, I buy standard size bottles of vodka (which, ounce for ounce, is much cheaper) and refill the smaller bottles.

The Vanilla Beans

Although vanilla beans are not usually sold at regular grocery stores, in my area anyhow, they are readily available at specialty grocery stores, bulk food stores and Costco (which is where I get them). As with practically everything else these days, you can also now get them online.

Before you go looking online and gasp at the fact that one bean will set you back $7, let me just say this:  A little goes a long way and you only need 2-3 beans (depending on the size of your bottle) to create a swoon-worthy vanilla extract.

My only criteria when it comes to buying vanilla beans is that they are fresh (i.e. moist and pliable). Beans from certain regions (such as Madagascar) are touted as being the “best”, but trust me - your vanilla extract will still be far and away superior to the ready-made grocery store version even if you don’t use the Grey Poupon of vanilla beans.

Vanilla Extract Recipe

What you need:

  • One small bottle of vodka (250–400ml/8-13 oz works well)
  • 1 vanilla bean for each 150ml of vodka

What you do:

Run the tip of a sharp knife down the length of each vanilla bean to cut it in half.

Plop the beans into the bottle of vodka. Tighten the cap, shake-shake-shake a few times, then place in a cool, dark place - I simply place it in my kitchen cabinet.

Over the next 4 weeks, shake the bottle a few times per week. Keeping your “brew” in a spot where you will see it every once in a while will remind you to shake. Whenever I open the kitchen cabinet to get something out, for instance, I notice the bottle & give it a couple of shakes. Even if you don’t shake the bottle and just leave it to sit for the next few weeks, those vanilla beans will still infuse the vodka.

Final Tip

Once I realized how incredible homemade vanilla extract was, I ran out and purchased another small bottle of vodka so that I could always have a bottle steeping and ready to go. As soon as I finish a bottle, I’ll switch it out with a full bottle that I have waiting in the wings and refill the empty one to start a new batch. Vanilla extract will last forever - or just about - so you don’t have to worry about it going bad. In fact, the longer it sits, the better it gets.

Once you’ve made your own vanilla extract, you’ll wonder why on earth you didn’t try it sooner. You’ll also be reaching for your bottle when friends come over and asking them to breathe in that oh-so-heady aroma…at which point they will undoubtedly ask you to pass on your homemade vanilla extract making wisdom.

Thinking of Starting a Fall Vegetable Garden? Now’s the time to start!

A common misconception is that fall crops are sown in the fall but if you wait until September to sow that final crop of lettuce or peas, they will have barely emerged from the soil when cooler and shorter days slow their growth to a crawl. The result?  Little to no harvest.

Fall crops are harvested in the fall, not sown in the fall – which means that you need to get those crops sown during the summer so that they have time to mature by your expected first frost date. When it comes to fall crops, days-to-harvest is one of the most important bits of detail on the seed packet.

When it comes to growing vegetable to harvest in the fall, the goal is to have a full sized crop, or nearly so, by the first frost date. It’s not as simple as subtracting the days-to-harvest from your first frost date, however. Since weather in the fall gets progressively cooler with fewer daylight hours, crops take longer to mature when compared to a spring planting. So in order to give them sufficient time, you need to add at least 1-2 weeks to the total days on the seed packet.

Working backwards from your first frost date, it’s often surprising how early you have to sow in order to harvest in the fall. Oregon Sugar Pod Snow Peas, for example, take 56 days to mature. Adding 2 weeks results in an expected days-to-harvest of 70 days – working backwards from my first frost date on Oct. 3rd, I would have to sow the peas by July 25.

Many crops are great candidates for a fall crop, namely those that appreciate cooler temperatures and are also relatively quick to mature.

Carrots

Carrots are one of my go-to fall crops. Why?  Because carrots that have grown in the cooler days of fall and have been hit by a bit of frost are much sweeter than those that mature during the summer. In fact, I sow the bulk of my carrots during the summer for fall harvest. When calculating days to maturity for carrots, I still work backwards from my first frost date in early October, even though I don’t plan on harvesting them until several weeks after that. Those last few weeks in the ground don’t contribute very much to growth, but they sweeten them up nicely.

Radishes

Anyone that has tried growing radishes during the summer knows it’s a fruitless exercise. Radishes prefer it cool and quickly turn woody/overly spicy when it gets too hot. With their need for cooler temperatures and super quick maturity – many of them bulb up in less than 30 days - radishes are the perfect fall crop. Since they are so quick, I usually give them only 1 week of extra time when calculating when to sow.

Turnips

Some quick maturing varieties of salad turnips (also known as Hakurei turnips) bulb up in as little as 30 days while storage types (purple-top) take about 2 months. Both varieties appreciate the cooler weather of fall and, just like carrots, will get sweeter after a few light frosts.

Beets

Another bulb that appreciates cooler weather and matures quickly. Depending on the variety you can be harvesting baby beets (and greens) in as little as 40 days.

Chioggia Beets copy

Peas

One of the most highly anticipated spring crops also makes a great fall crop. I usually stick with snow peas in the fall as they can be picked while still quite young, giving me a larger window of opportunity for harvesting.

Kohlrabi

Kohlrabi appreciates the cooler weather of fall & doesn’t mind a few frosts. Pay close attention to the days-to-harvest as it can vary from 40 all the way up to 80 days for some of the larger varieties.

Kale

Kale is a great fall crop. Not only can it be harvested at all stages of growth, from baby to mature leaves, but it also sweetens up once touched by frost. I harvest it as a “cut and come again crop”, harvesting the larger outer leaves, leaving the small ones in the center to continue to grow. In my short season, I’ll plant once in the late spring and harvest from the same plants all summer long and into the fall. If I wanted some extra kale to beef up my freezer stores, I would sow another round in mid-summer for fall harvest.

Red & White Russian Kale

Leaf Lettuce

Leaf lettuce (as opposed to head lettuce) is another amazing cut-and-come again veg that prefers cooler weather. Unlike kale, however, no matter how much you baby it, it will not withstand the heat of summer and I have to reseed several times for a continuous supply.  An early August sowing will give me full sized plants by the end of September which I will pick leaves from until November and even into December in some years. No kidding!  What’s the secret to harvesting lettuce in the cooler, sometimes freezing temperatures of late fall?  Don’t harvest when the leaves are frozen. Wait until they defrost during the warmer daytime temperatures and you too could be harvesting lettuce well into December.

Bush Beans

Unlike climbing beans, bush beans are quicker to mature, giving you an abundant crop in as little as 50 days. There’s no trellis to worry about either. Beans like it warm and don’t do well with frosts so it’s a good idea to give them some extra time. I would give them an extra 3 weeks or even more from the days listed on the packet.

Contender Beans copy

Swiss Chard

As with most leafy veg, Swiss chard can be harvested at any stage, from baby leaf to fully mature. As an added bonus, my fall chard doesn’t suffer from leaf miners like my summer chard often does.

Spinach

Although I’ve never had good luck with spinach, I’m throwing that out there as a possibility when it comes to a quick fall crop, especially as, like chard and lettuce, it can be harvested at all stages of growth from baby leaf to fully grown. Spinach can be a fussy, however, and may not germinate well if temperatures are too hot.

Herbs

Concentrate on easy annual herbs such as dill, basil and cilantro - not only are they quick growers, but they can also be harvested at any stage of growth. Even better, sow some in a pot or window box that can be brought inside if frosty temperatures threaten – this could easily extend your harvest well into late fall/early winter.

Fall crops are a great way of maximizing the use of space in your vegetable garden.  Just like so much else in life, however, timing is everything.  So get out those seeds now and get sowing - you’ll be glad you did come October as you harvest some garden fresh goodness.

Tips on How to Use Seed Tape

I recently wrote a step-by-step guide on How to Make Seed Tape – a task that can be done in the depths of winter, saving you much needed time when the gardening season really takes off and you have a mountain of chores to do.

When you are ready to sow, it’s a simple process – in a nutshell, you lay down your seed tape using the proper row spacing, cover with soil and then water. Over the years, however, I’ve found that a few simple tips and tricks can go a long way in ensuring that your seed tape adventure is a success.

DIY Seed Tape copy 

Choose a Relatively Windless Day

It goes without saying that you should not be out there sowing seed tape when it’s raining, but wind is another consideration. On a windy day, keeping the tape from shifting or flying away as you are laying it on the bed can become incredibly frustrating unless you are in a sheltered spot.  And since the point of using seed tape is to make sowing quicker & easier, chasing airborne strips of toilet paper sort of defeats the purpose – the neighbours may be amused, but you probably won’t be ;)

Water the Bed Ahead of Time

Prolonged watering after you sow can end up damaging the seed tape or displacing the soil covering the seeds so, unless the bed has already been moistened by Mother Nature, it’s a good idea to give it a good watering before you sow. I prefer to water several hours ahead of time as this will ensure that the bed is moist, but not sopping wet. Once the seed tape is sown, a light misting is usually enough to settle the top layer of soil.

Separate the Varieties

If you are sowing different varieties, consider placing the tape for each variety into a separate container, which will make it easier to keep track of. I find that 500 ml (2 cup) containers with lids work well for this as they are roomy enough that you can remove one strip of seed tape at a time without it getting tangled with the others and potentially tearing. While I’m at it, I’ll create the variety label and tuck that into the container as well – this way I won’t forget to mark the row.

Seed Tape in Container copy

Prepare the Topping Soil, if needed

If the seeds need to be sown ¼” deep or more, I’ll simply make a trench the appropriate depth, lay down the seed tape, then fill in with soil. If the seed only needs a light covering of soil, such as with carrots, I’ll place seed tape directly on the soil surface and then sprinkle soil over top. The soil in my garden is fairly dense and heavy so I prepare a lighter mixture by combining equal parts seed starting mix and garden soil. The seed starting mix on its own dries out too quickly, but together with the garden soil, it’s the perfect blend – lightweight with just enough bulk to retain moisture more effectively. If your soil is sandy, I would go the other way and add potting soil or compost to increase water retention.

Position the Seed Tape

Position the seed tape in the bed, with seeds facing up, using the desired spacing between rows. If using seed mats, the row spacing is already done so all you need to worry about is the spacing between the mats.

Label, Label, Label

Before you cover up that tape, make sure to label your rows or squares. You may think you’ll remember where you sowed everything, but believe me, you won’t. In a few days you’ll be standing there wondering whether those bits of green coming up are the radishes or the turnips. Yes, I’ve been there…more than once.

Label Seeds and Cover copy

Water the Bed

After covering the seed tape with soil, use a gentle or mist spray setting when watering the bed to avoid damaging or displacing the seed tape. This is where watering the bed ahead of time pays off – it should only take a minute or two to moisten & settle the soil topping the seeds.

And Keep Watering

Water the bed at least twice per day to keep that top layer of soil from drying out. The hotter it is, the more often you’ll have to water.

Keep up the daily watering until most of the seeds have germinated. At this point, the roots will be working their way down into the soil, so keeping the soil surface moist is not as much of a concern & you should cut back to a regular watering schedule (watering less often, but deeply).

That's all there is to it.  These simple tips should put you well on the road to a fun and fruitful (or vegful??) seed tape adventure.

How to Make Seed Tape – Step-by-Step

I first learned how to make seed tape several years ago when I was looking for a better way to sow carrot seed. Sprinkling those seeds onto the soil evenly was practically impossible. More often than not, I would end up with dozens of seedlings coming up in one spot, followed by several inches of bare soil. And all that thinning – definitely not one of my favourite tasks!

Then I heard about seed tape – just lay it on the bed, cover it up with soil and water. No fussing with tiny seeds, no wondering if you’ve sown too many seeds or not enough, and minimal thinning.

If you have hung around a seed stand for any length of time, you have likely seen ready-to-use seed tape. Why make your own seed tape, you may ask?  One word:  Variety. The pre-made options are limited while DIY seed tape gives you the flexibility of growing any variety you choose (think dozens of options vs. one or two).

Let’s get started…

Step 1 - Gather your supplies

You will need seeds (of course!), waxed paper, toilet paper (aka TP - organic is now widely available), a ruler, a non-toxic marker, a pen and non-toxic children’s glue. If you prefer not to use glue, you can also create your own by mixing flour with a bit of water, although I have personally found this mixture a bit frustrating to use. You will also need some clothespins and some string or a laundry rack when you set up your drying spot (Step 2).

DIY Seed Tape - Step 1 copy 

Step 2 - Set Up a Drying Spot

When you prepare each section of seed tape, you will have a length of TP with dots of glue topped with seeds. You can’t just leave the strips on the table to dry as the glue does go through the TP & will stick to whatever surface you are working on, so the seed tape needs to be hung up. The glue only takes a few hours to dry so anywhere that you can attach it using clothespins will work, from an indoor laundry rack to a string tied between kitchen cabinet handles. The one thing I wouldn’t recommend is hanging them outside as you don’t want critters or the wind to damage them.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 2 copy

Now that your supplies are gathered and a drying area is set up, you are ready to make seed tape.

Step 3 – Divide the TP into Shorter Lengths

Cut up a few lengths of TP to whatever length is most convenient for you. I find it easier to handle short strips of seed tape, both when making it and in the garden, rather than longer sections that can get stuck together or rip. I generally use 2-3’ lengths but you can, of course, use any length that you want, so long as it fits on your table.

Step 4 – Prepare the Waxed Paper

Cut a piece of waxed paper that is slightly longer than your TP strips. I didn’t do this on my first attempt at making seed tape and the TP ended up sticking to the table & ripping, even though the glue was still wet.  Waxed papers slick surface releases the glue-dotted TP much more easily and it also protects your work surface from marker stains, which WILL go through the TP (I learned that on my first try too – good thing they were washable markers!).

DIY Seed Tape - Step 3 copy 

Step 5 - Mark Out Your Spacing

Place one length of TP on the waxed paper and mark your desired spacing with the marker. If you have fresh seed, you should be fine going right to the recommended final spacing. For example, if the packet of seed indicates that radishes should be thinned to 2” apart, mark the TP every 2”. If your seed is a little older, you may want to do half spacing and then thin once germination occurs. In the radish example, you would mark the TP every inch, then remove every other seedling once they germinate, resulting in a final spacing of 2”.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 5 copy

Since TP is a 4.5” wide, you can create multiple rows on each length which will then be cut into individual strips. Once you mark the 1st row, simply copy the seed spacing in the other rows. Leave enough room between rows so that the strips are wide enough to be easily handled without tearing after they are cut (4-5 rows of max).

You don’t have to worry about spacing in between the rows as that will be done in the bed itself (i.e. if you need 4” spacing between rows, you simply space the individual strips 4” apart). If you prefer to do the row spacing ahead of time as well, you can create seed mats instead of seed tape (see “Seed Mats” below).

Step 6 – Identify Different Varieties

If you are growing different varieties, figure out how many TP rows of each you want, then mark both the beginning and end of the row with the name or initials. Or don’t and be surprised by what comes up!  I use a pen to note the variety as markers tend to bleed.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 6 copy 

Step 7 - A Dab of Glue & A Seed

Starting with the top row, place just a dab of glue on each mark. Use no more than a literal “dab” of glue as this is more than sufficient for the seed to stick and you want it to dry relatively quickly. When you reach the end of the first row, go back and plop one seed onto each dab of glue. There’s no need to push the seed down; it will stick to the glue on its own.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 7 copy 

Do one row at a time so that the glue doesn’t start to dry on you before adding the seed. Also, start with the top row and work your way down, which minimizes the chance of accidentally disturbing a row that’s already been done.

Step 8 – Drying

After you complete one length of TP, gently remove it from the waxed paper. Do this slowly, so as not to tear the sheet or disturb the seeds. Hang the seeded TP in the drying area, making sure that you leave a bit of space between each length so that they don’t touch.

Hang Seed Tape to Dry

 

Step 9 – Storing & Cutting into Strips

Once the glue is completely dry – I usually wait at least 4-5 hours or even overnight just to make sure – you can fold up & store the seed tape in a zip lock bag until you are ready to use it, be that the next day or two months from now.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 9a copy 

When you are ready to sow, simply cut the seed tape into individual strips and away you go.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 9b copy 

You can, of course, cut the tape into strips before you store it but I find the thin strips rather fragile and easily torn, so I prefer to leave the TP lengths intact until it’s time to sow.

Seed Mats

One alternative to seed strips is a seed mat where you not only space the seeds within each row, but you also use the correct spacing between each row. Then, instead of cutting the sheets into strips, you would use the entire mat as is.

When creating seed mats, I use paper napkins instead of toilet paper. If the napkins are the thick, multi-layered type, I separate them into individual layers. Paper napkins are also a great way to sow using the Square Foot Method as you can create a seed mat for each “square”.  Technically, the square foot method sows seeds in a grid pattern, but I prefer to stagger the rows within each square, which is what I’ve done for the French Breakfast radish seed mat below.

Seed Mat copy 

One of the great things about making your own seed tape/mat is that most of the work is done ahead of time. In fact, I often make seed tape during the winter - it’s a bit of garden therapy when there’s a foot of snow outside. Then, once the season gets going and there are more tasks to complete than there are hours in the day, sowing is that much easier and quicker.

Related Post: Tips on How to Use Seed Tape

Growing from Seed: What the Packets Don't Tell You

When I first started growing from seed I relied heavily on the advice given by seed packets. Some packets are better than others, but the vast majority give you only the most basic information, namely when and how deeply/far apart to sow.

Sometimes, it really is that easy – plop the seed into a pot of soil or into the ground, give it a good watering and wait for the magic to begin. Other times, however, things may not go according to plan – the seeds don’t germinate at all or they do, but then keel over and wither away for no apparent reason.

I’ve had my fair share of seedy misadventures over the years and have learned (often the hard way) that a few simple steps can make all the difference when it comes to seed starting success.

1. Start with squeaky clean equipment. I’m talking pots, trays, tools and even the plant tags that you use to identify what’s in that cell pack.This is the most important step that you can take to help prevent disease, especially damping off which is one scourge that can take you from seedling bliss to seedling despair in the blink of an eye. I usually do a mass cleaning of all my pots, cell packs, trays and tools at the end of the growing season so that they are ready to go come early spring.

Fall Pot Cleanup

2. Moisten the soil. Most bags of seed-starting mix are pre-moistened but if it’s been sitting around for a while chances are that it’s on the dry side.If you think you’ll just water after you sow those seeds, think again – most seed starting mixes are heavy on peat which is almost impossible to moisten by simply pouring water on top of it – all that water will simply run down the inside of the pot and end up in the saucer. In order to thoroughly moisten the soil mix, I pour it into a plastic tub, add some water (not too much), then stir and stir – a long handled stirring spoon or your hands work equally well.I repeat, adding a bit more water each time, until the mixture is just damp, but not soaking wet. To test if it’s moist enough, grab a handful and squeeze – it should hold together. Now poke it with your finger – if it falls apart easily, you are good to go. If it stays in a lump, then you added too much water - simply mix in a bit more soil to help soak up the excess.If you are using a terra cotta pot, give it a good soak (about 10 minutes or so) before filling with soil so that the porous clay doesn’t wick up the moisture in your soil. Lastly, it’s equally important to moisten the soil ahead of time if you are sowing directly into a garden bed, unless Mother Nature has done it for you.

Moistening the Seeding Mix

3. Air circulation is important. Keeping the air moving around the seedlings not only toughens up those stems, making them sturdier & better able to cope with the elements once they are transplanted outside, but also helps minimize fungal diseases such as damping off. I keep a small fan running on low speed & position it a few feet away from the seedlings themselves – you want the air flow to resemble a gentle breeze not a hurricane.

4. Know the optimal temperature for germination. While placing a seed flat on that toasty area on top of the refrigerator may be a good idea for a heat lover such as tomatoes, lettuce may find that same spot a bit too warm and germination would suffer. Those same lettuce seeds, however, would do just fine in my 66°F (19°C) basement but I would likely get slow, sparse germination from my eggplants. The bottom line?You don’t need to be too hung up on precise temperatures but knowing whether your particular seeds prefer it warmer or cooler can help you choose a spot that will encourage better and faster germination.

5. Some seeds need special treatment in order for dormancy to be broken and germination to occur – this process is called stratification. When I first grew Echinacea from seed, the packet simply stated to sow 6-8 weeks before my last frost date. Sounds simple enough...a bit too simple, as it turns out, since only 1 out of 8 seeds germinated.Some research revealed that Echinacea seed needs to be exposed to 4-6 weeks of cold temperatures in order to germinate. I sowed the remaining seeds in a pot, covered it with a plastic bag and placed it in the refrigerator for 6 weeks. Then I took it out and left it at room temperature. Lo and behold, every single seed germinated. I could also have replicated nature by sowing those seeds directly into the ground in the fall, but I prefer to raise most seedlings in a more controlled environment, transplanting them outdoors once they are better able to fend for themselves.

Echinacea seedlings

Of course, you can do everything right and still have poor germination or growth – that happens to everyone, no matter how seasoned a gardener you are. Sometimes it’s our own fault – letting the cell packs dry out a bit too much, for example - while other times it’s not (I’ve received a bad batch of seed on more than one occasion).

Don’t let a bad experience or two discourage you from trying again. When it comes to growing plants from seed, it’s important to keep in mind that the goal is to maximize the chance of success, not eliminate the possibility of failure. So grab those seeds, scrub those pots and get sowing – nothing is quite so exciting as watching that first bit of green popping up from the soil while winter winds blow outside.







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