Tomato Picking Time In The Key Of C
Though summer arrived with warmth in its wings south of here, cool nights and grey days are still the norm for my island home near Seattle. Indeed, around here, folk wisdom considers July 5 to be the first day of summer. Sadly, the warm up memo seems to have gotten lost this year, yet despite the chilly weather, my tomatoes are growing strongly, thanks to their grafted super roots. Since my new home has the tiniest of yards, my tomatoes are right out front in large galvanized troughs. The full southeast exposure gives them plenty of light and reflected heat from the gravel parking pad and the aluminum house siding offers extra warmth as well. Thanks to that, my plants are already loaded with ripening fruit, and I’ve been harvesting juicy little Gold Nugget cherry tomatoes all week.
As I thinned the vigorous stems, I found tomatoes ripening on every plant. As always, I interplanted annuals and a few perennials with my edibles and am happy to see them alive with bees and other pollinators. While tomatoes are self-fertile and pollinated mainly by wind or vibration, it turns out that fruit set is greatly increased by the presence of certain bees, who vibrate their wings to the tone of middle C. In this case, the beneficial bees are not European honeybees but native bumbles and mud bees as well as various other native pollinators. To encourage the bees, I’m planting lots of annuals, and to encourage great tomato set, I’m humming favorite songs. Fortunately, the key of C is nearly universal; you can sing almost anything in C, as lots of folk songs demonstrate. Can’t sing? Use a middle C tuning fork to help tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and blueberries shed way more pollen by vibration, aka buzz pollination. Isn’t that so amazingly marvelous?
For even more fun, watch this intriguing little bumblebee video:
The Dirt On Native Bees
While bare dirt in general is not a great idea in terms of carbon draw down, it does make good habitat for mud bees and other ground dwellers. Though specific species vary from region to region, the Left Coast hosts a number of bees that nest underground. Some are very good pollinators, more efficient than European honeybees, and unless their habitat is disturbed, they are mild mannered. Most of the aggressive bee species are colonial, protective of their shared hives. Solitary bees like Mason bees and mud bees don’t have that kind of social structure and their small egg caches don’t attract honey-loving critters, so they don’t need to be fierce.
In my new place, I’ve left a little sloping bed mostly unplanted under my dear neighbor Olga’s huge hydrangea. For now, I’m filling it with dormant bulbs, but come autumn, I’ll plant oreganos and thymes there, as well as some native milkweed (Asclepias speciosa is the only one found west of the mountains in Washington). My plan was to avoid watering the bed through the summer, as moisture could compromise the slumbering bulbs. Bare earth isn’t usually a good thing, but it’s been too dry for weeds to sprout and this weekend I noticed a few mud bees making their way from my little dirt patch to the tomato plants. Yay! I look forward to even better yields thanks to them, especially since I’m growing quite a few cherry tomatoes and native bees can be particularly helpful there.
Though my garden is too new to have much in bloom yet, my emerging annuals are already attracting bumbles as well as honeybees, hoverflies, and a few butterflies and moths. Zinnias, California poppies, nasturtiums, love-in-a-mist, rosemary and oregano blossoms are especially popular, though portulaca will also attract lots of attention when it gets going (I sowed it rather late). My little lemon tree produced a zillion flowers in its new sunny spot and the fragrant, starry blossoms were never without a bee companion (especially bumbles). Now there are so many tiny lemons forming that I’ll need to support the flexible branches; what a problem! Thanks to the musically buzzing bees, my peppers and eggplants are also setting well, with the reliable, productive Alma paprika leading the way.
Alma means soul, soulful, or inspiriting in several languages and this lovely little heritage pepper is well named. Alma goes through a series of color changes as it ripens, the flavor deepening as the peppers shift from cream to orange to red. Tasty at every stage, ripe red Almas are the best ever for smoking (as in fish, not joints); alderwood is my current favorite but cherrywood also lends a delicious depth to the flavor. Dried while still orange and finely ground, the resulting paprika will be sweet and mild, while dark red Almas are spicier, hotter and especially full flavored. After a few slight kitchen incidents, I now use a dedicated coffee grinder for peppers and spice blends. Domestic harmony is such a blessing.
Ongoing temperature swings are just part of summer up here, and after many disappointments, I now grow mainly grafted tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Thanks to their robust roots, I now harvest enough of all of these heat lovers to enjoy fresh almost daily, with enough over to roast, freeze, and can as chutney and salsas. To keep their strength up, I give these extremely productive plants a midsummer pick-me-up. This blend of liquid kelp, humic acid, and fish fertilizer is gentle but encouraging for pretty much everything. I spray it on tomato and pepper foliage and also use it as a root drench after watering my pots. Do, however, label your container; once I made it in an empty maple syrup container and it ended up on my son’s pancakes, which didn’t go well.
Midsummer Plant Elixir
1 tablespoon liquid kelp concentrate
1 tablespoon humic acid concentrate
1/4 cup liquid fish fertilizer
1 gallon water
Combine in a gallon jug and let stand overnight. Store in a cool, dark place. Shake well before using. Give each tomato plant (or hanging flower basket) 1 cup and each basil plant 1/2 cup of mixture every 2 weeks. Plants in 2-5 gallon containers get 1/4 cup each on same schedule.
Favorite Summery Salad
Several sharp eyed readers noticed that the salad image I posted wasn’t one of the recipes. This one got crowded out last week but it deserves space as it’s one of my almost-daily treats at this time of year. I make this without oil but you can certainly add some if you prefer it that way. See what you think:
Raw Tomato Salsa Salad
1-2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes (use several kinds)
2 ears sweet corn, kernels cut off
1 cup chopped sweet red peppers
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup stemmed cilantro
1 pinch sea salt
In a serving bowl, toss all ingredients gently and let stand for 10 minutes. Add lettuce, toss gently and serve. Serves at least one.