Earlier this summer, I started growing some Log House grafted tomatoes, just to see how they would do. I particularly enjoy eating fresh tomatoes, especially when their acid-sugar balance is a lively one. Sadly, tomatoes are hard to please in my Bainbridge Island backyard (a ferry ride west of Seattle). This summer we’ve had endless foggy, grey days when the marine layer just won’t lift. Night temperatures have dipped into the 40’s and low 50’s, even in August, which means soil temperatures are also lower than usual. For heat lovers like tomatoes, cool nights and cool soil create the perfect opportunity for blights, molds, and mildews and we gardeners must stay on our toes to keep tropical vegetables content.
Grafting tomatoes is utterly intriguing; just as with fruit trees, roses, or grapes, you partner a succulent but less-than-robust scion (the top part) with a vigorous root system that’s disease resistant and tolerant of temperature swings. Like green magic, the result is synergistic; earlier, bigger yields from healthy plants. Sounds great, and it certainly works in Oregon (we call it The Land Of Real Summer), but I was curious what would happen here in what feels like Little Siberia.
Our current home is on an acre of sloping land that hosts several herds of deer as well as an enormous population of raccoons. Thus, my vegetable garden is in containers that line a large, south-facing deck, 15 feet above the critters. I plant in tree tubs mounted on pieces of 2 x 4s to allow for good drainage and airflow to the roots.
We are also converting our old, cracked hot tub into a hot bed for fall and winter vegetables, which seems like a terrific exchange.
My tomatoes are getting all the sun there is to get and they are growing strongly despite the cool weather. If you give grafted tomatoes a try, it is vital not to follow the usual practice of deep planting or thick mulching, since roots formed on the scion lack the advantages the rootstock brings to the union. Keep the graft well above ground and pinch off any shoots from beneath the graft. I find I need to do this every week or so, since my pots are lightly mulched with lovely pit-washed dairy manure, which is extremely inviting to roots of all kinds. Though the main stems are very sturdy, the top growth still needs considerable support. I use stout bamboo poles, three to a pot, woven round with coarse garden twine that gives clambering arms a good purchase.
I’m trying out a pair of grafted tomato combos (Rose and Moonglow in one tub, and Brandywine Red and Brandywine Yellow in another) and am eagerly tracking the ripening of the first tiny fruit. After several weeks of seeing many flowers but no fruit, I realized that I was also not seeing any bees. Many local hives have collapsed this year and our wild bees are also in short supply. To lure in as many as possible, I planted masses of red and tawny double nasturtiums and plain white, honey scented sweet alyssum, a guaranteed bee pleaser. To please myself, I also tucked in pots of luscious, green-throated Black Velvet petunias mixed with coppery Sunray and Summertime Blueberry African daisies and Purple Flash peppers, with dusky leaves and glossy black little peppers that will sear the tongue out of your head. These also attract a range of pollinators, including hover flies and little native bees.
Now I have decent fruit set, I have given each plant a drink of seawater, which recent studies at Rutgers indicate will add dimension and extra savor to that classic tomato taste. The proper dose is 1-1/2 cups of seawater per plant, which inlanders can replicate with a sea salt/mineral extract called SEA-90. Interestingly, the Rutgers studies show that when farmers switched from sodium nitrate fertilizers to less expensive urea or ammonium nitrate, the missing sodium made for less-flavorful fruits and vegetables. I also know that high-nitrogen fertilizers can dilute tomato flavor as surely as too much water, so I am growing my tomatoes on the dry side, offering liquid kelp (I like Maxicrop) along with a moderate 5-5-5 organic fertilizer. Because my plants are in pots, which need frequent watering, I am feeding every few weeks, but if they were in garden beds, I would feed monthly. By late August, I’ll stop both food and water, and prune off any excess foliage to encourage better ripening.
If these plants are still productive when autumn arrives, I’ll trundle them into our sun porch, where they may grow on through winter. (Tomatoes are not annuals, but frost-sensitive perennials.) Onward!
Splendid Summer Salads
Our cool summer may be frustrating for tomatoes, but it’s terrific for greens of all kinds. I’m growing as many kinds of lettuce as I can find, along with arugula, radicchio, and brisk Italian chicories. My favorite salads also include plenty of fresh herbs, usually flat Italian parsley, basil or cilantro, and lemon or plain thyme. Here’s a current family favorite to try:
Summery Salad With Lemon Basil Pesto Dressing
2 cups Romaine, shredded
2 cups red Romaine, shredded
2 cups red Butterhead lettuce, shredded
1 cup blue kale, stemmed and shredded
1 cup joi choy, shredded
1/4 cup Italian parsley, stemmed
1/4 cup golden raspberries
2 tablespoons red onion, chopped
1/4 cup Lemon Basil Pesto Dressing (see below)
In a serving bowl, combine all ingredients, toss gently and let stand 20 minutes before serving. Serves 4-6.
Lemon Basil Pesto
1/4 cup roasted pine nuts or walnuts
1 cup lemon basil
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup grated Asiago or Pecorino cheese
In a food processor or blender, grind nuts to a coarse meal. Add lemon basil, 1 tablespoon olive oil, the shallot and salt and grind to a fine paste. Add oil in a steady stream while running machine on low, then add cheese and process for 3-5 seconds more. Toss with hot pasta or rice, stir into salad dressings, or add to soups and sauces. Makes about 1 cup. Cover leftovers with a thin layer of olive oil and refrigerate in a tightly sealed glass jar for up to 3 days.
Lemon Basil Pesto Vinaigrette
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons ponzu vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Lemon Basil Pesto
1 teaspoon nutritional yeast (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake vigorously to emulsify.
Refrigerate leftovers in a tightly sealed glass jar for up to 3 days.
Pestos can also be made with herbs other than basil, such as cilantro, parsley, and even spicy-hot chicory. Here’s a delicious one to use in cole slaw, salad dressings, or a warm potato salad.
1/4 cup roasted almonds or hazelnuts
1 cup Barba di Cappi or any chicory
1 cup fruity olive oil
1 clove rose or any garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
In a food processor or blender, grind nuts to a coarse meal. Add chicory, 1 tablespoon olive oil, the garlic and salt and grind to a fine paste. Add oil in a steady stream while running machine on low, then add cheese and process for 3-5 seconds more. Toss with hot pasta or rice, stir into salad dressings, or add to soups and sauces. Makes about 1 cup. Cover leftovers with a thin layer of olive oil and refrigerate in a tightly sealed glass jar for up to 3 days.
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