Home Gardens Musings Personal Sustainability: How-To School Gardens Uncategorized

Trellising and Suckers (aka Keeping Tomato Plants Under Control)

Caged Tomato

By the end of June, most gardens are fully planted and have had several weeks to settle in and start to grow.  If your rows were fully weeded when you planted, you’ve probably had a few weeks of vacation from this ongoing garden chore.  Pests can start to be a nuisance, praying on small vulnerable leaves and stems (read more about pest control here).

Right about now is a great time to get ahead of the game and create a plan to sucker, trellis, or stake any plant that will likely grow tall and may become top-heavy with fruit.  In our garden, I tie pepper plants to stakes; make sure beans, peas, and cucumbers have a trellis to climb on; and sucker and cage my tomato plants.  Most of this makes sense to the average person, except: what the heck is suckering?!

tomato sucker

Plants that are naturally bushy and sprawling, like tomatoes and tomatillos, grow new “heads” (or “suckers”) at every point where a leaf grows from the main stem.  When I worked in school gardens, I would tell the kids that suckers grow out of the armpits of the plants.  If you want a huge sprawling bush, that’s great!  BUT, if you want to be able to find all your mature fruits, keep the plant from sprawling all over the row and plant neighbors, and want to keep it off the ground to avoid disease, you’ll need to take action.

caged tomatoes

There are many trellising techniques for tomatoes.  What you choose should be based on the amount of space you have, the number of plants you want to grow, and how many extra supplies you’ll need to invest in.  Feel free to let me know if you want my thoughts on your specific circumstance!  In general, I recommend starting with a large tomato cage, and suckering your plant to keep it airy, growing up, and focused on producing fruit off its main stem.

Now that my tomato plants are over a foot high, they’ve started to grow suckers.  At this age, I can simply pinch them off with my fingers.  If suckers get very large, you’ll want to use snippers or scissors so you don’t rip the main stalk of the plant.  By removing suckers when they are small, I encourage the plant to focus on growing up rather than out.  In August, this will result in a more orderly tomato row with plants that are (mostly) growing within their cages.  This makes for easy harvesting, less spread of disease (which usually happens when rain splashes dirt up onto your plant or when leaves are densely packed together), and less breakage if there are high winds.

Suckering tomato copy

Suckering is an ongoing chore throughout the season, but is quick and easy, and fits into walks through the garden when you can also keep an eye out for maturing fruit, find new pests before they cause much damage, and take a moment to pluck a few weeds.

IMG_6824Want to get creative?  Let a few suckers grow in a strategic way.  Tomato espalier anyone?  Last year in my garden I planted a single plant at the base of a trellis.  I let one sucker grow up each wire, and then removed the rest.  I used string to periodically tie each branch to it’s assigned wire – tomatoes don’t send out tendrils or curl around wires like peas, beans, and cucumbers. My yield per plant was very high because I was essentially growing multiple “trunks” from one plant.

Happy Gardening!

Home Gardens Recipes Uncategorized

September in the Garden


fruits-of-septemberSeptember is, quite literally, a fruitful month in Vermont gardens.  Melons finish their journey to ripeness, apples and pears are ready in orchards, fall raspberry canes bow with the weight of fruit, and tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants continue to mature in gardens.  In our sunny southern sloping garden, we’re excited to be growing these heat-loving treats so successfully.  It is also a time for preservation as we prepare for impending frost.  Vegetables like kale, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans can be blanched and frozen.  Ingredients for salsa, tomatoes, pesto, hot sauce, and apple sauce are all ready to be harvested and canned.  Almost any vegetable or fruit from the garden can be pickled.

Here are a selection of some of my favorite recipes that may help inspire you to enjoy the bounty September has to offer:


Salsa – Our basic recipe and ideas for inventive iterations.


This most delicious way to highlight cherry tomatoes.


Pan Seared Eggplant, which would be great with Dukkah sprinkled liberally on top.


Flourless chocolate cake, featured annually in our household smothered in fall raspberries.


Pesto – consider swapping another nut or seed for pine nuts, another cheese for parmesan, or another herb for basil.  So many opportunities for great flavored sauces!


Pickles and fermented veggies – The idea I always fall back on at the end of the day.  Almost any favorite vegetable or fruit can be pickled.  However (even more beneficially) wilty, less favorite, or overly abundant things can be pickled with equal success.

Wishing you a happy harvest season!

Home Gardens Recipes Uncategorized

Delicious Tomato Cobbler


There is a new recipe to slip into our annual September rhythms of making gallons of salsa, canning tomatoespan frying eggplants, eating cherry tomatoes off the vine, and savoring sun ripened fall raspberries.

I came across a recipe for Tomato Cobbler with Cornmeal Chedder Buscuits when looking for a way to use our overflowing basket of sungold tomatoes.  Some of them were cracked and needed to be used up.  Most importantly, more and more were ripening every day and we needed to make a dent in our supply.


I wanted something delicious that didn’t require cutting every cherry tomato in half or any other tedious processing.  This recipe results in a truly mouthwatering meal-in-a- bowl with plenty of garlic and onion.  It highlights the sour and sweet sungold tomatoes complemented by warm fluffy cheesy biscuits on top.   My only adjustment was to soak the flour in the buttermilk a day ahead of time and use masa harina instead of cornmeal.  Ripped up basil leaves add a nice green garnish and an fresh herbal flavor to this delicious baked dish. Mmmmmm!


Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

Easy Tomato Soup Recipe


Did you can any tomatoes this summer or fall?  If so, these first cold days of November are the perfect time to start enjoying that sun ripened home grown tomato flavor as a classic easy comfort food: tomato soup.

Creamy tomato soup
Creamy tomato soup

Basic Tomato Soup (makes 4 entrée-sized bowls)
-Equipment: medium-to-large pot, immersion blender
-2 quarts canned tomatoes (from your garden, or from the store)
-1 onion, chopped (yellow or white type, not Vidalia or sweet)
-2-4 cloves of garlic, diced
-1 tablespoon fat (I love using bacon grease or butter here, but feel free to use whatever you prefer to fry in)
-splash of olive oil
-salt, pepper, and herbs to taste

1) Heat pot and add your frying oil/fat.  Once hot, add chopped onions.  Stir occasionally until transparent.  If they’re sticking, cover pot and lower heat.

2) Add garlic, stir, and let cook for a few minutes.  Once the garlic is soft, you’re ready for the next step.

3) Dump in your tomatoes, and bring to boil.  If you are adding dried green herbs like basil or oregano, add them in now.  Then turn down to simmer, and allow to cook for 5-10 minutes.

4) Turn off heat.  Now is the time to add your olive oil, salt, seasonings, and/or fresh green herbs.  Next, stick your immersion blender into the pot and purée.  Taste and adjust.

5) When you’re ready to eat, turn the burner back on until the soup is hot.  Enjoy!

Garnished with Arugula

Variations: There’s nothing quite like the simplicity of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil.  It can be fun, however, to play around with this recipe – especially if it’s a regular menu item at your house.  We love the following variations:
-Make it Hot: add cayenne pepper or hot sauce to taste
-Basil Lovers: add a container of pesto after cooking but before blending
-Cream of Tomato: Add 1/2 cup cream or half and half, or 1 cup whole milk after cooking but before blending
-Garnishes: beautify your bowls with a sprinkle of fresh chopped basil (watch out, it browns quickly), a dollop of pesto, chopped parsley, or chopped arugula
-Make it Moroccan: add 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and paprika when you add your tomatoes.  Adjust to taste.

Luckily, I was able to snap a picture of this spicy cream of tomato soup before it was all eaten up.  This stuff doesn't last long around our house!
Luckily, I was able to snap a picture of this spicy cream of tomato soup before it was all eaten up. This stuff doesn’t last long around our house!
Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

Canning Tomatoes

If you’re interested in learning to preserve your own food, can tomatoes.  If you love the flavor of real sun ripened home grown tomatoes and miss it in the winter, can tomatoes.  Worried about BPA in liners of canned tomatoes?  Can your own tomatoes! If harvested tomatoes are building up on the counter, can tomatoes.


Canning tomatoes is one of the simplest recipes, is a great way to gain comfort in canning, preserves that amazing taste of in season tomatoes, and is easy to use for soups, chili, and sauce throughout the winter.  Here’s how:

1) Check your supplies: you’ll need tomatoes, a pot big enough to fit all of your tomatoes, a ladle, a funnel, clean Ball jars (we use mostly quarts), lids, caps, a large canning pot, and a rack.  Canning supplies and equipment can usually be found at your local hardware store in August and September.


chunked-tomatoes2) Clean your tomatoes.  Core them and cut out any bad spots.  A bit of rotten tomato could ruin the flavor of your entire batch.  Cut them into large chunks and put into your pot.

3) Bring to a boil and then simmer until air is released (it will be foamy at first.  Then juice/liquid will start to look clear).  Add salt if desired.

4) Ladle hot tomatoes into ball jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space.  Put on lids,  gently screwing on caps (they should not be cranked tight, but shouldn’t be so loose that tomatoes could leak out).

5) “Process” in a boiling-water bath for 30 minutes.  This means: bring water to a boil in your canning pot, put your jars in your canning rack, and then submerge your jars/rack in the boiling water for 30 minutes.

6) Let cool.  After 24 hours, rims may be removed to store.


Want to learn more about canning?  The Ball Blue Book is a great resource that covers all of the basics, and more!  Also try asking your elders – canning was a common household task for most of our grandparents.   Wondering how to use your canned tomatoes?  Heat and add pesto for a yummy tomato basil soup.  Try as a base for chili.  Or add a can of tomato paste to turn your tomatoes into sauce without needing to boil for hours.  Enjoy!

Home Gardens Recipes School Gardens

August Harvest Recipes

Every day there’s more to harvest from the garden.  Tomatoes, herbs, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, tomatillos, potatoes, onions, beans, squash … the list goes on.  Here are some favorite August recipes that we use to enjoy the in-season bounty.  Click on the blue text below to see the selected recipe:


Tomatoes ~ Our basic salsa recipe and ideas for fun additions


Eggplants ~ Pan-fried eggplant, my favorite!


Blueberries ~ Several ideas for combining lemon and blueberries in sweet treats


Chard ~ Quiche or stir-fried


Kale ~ two ways


Herbs ~ tips for harvesting and preserving


Peppers ~ preserving hot sauce


And in the peak of harvest season, never forget about pickling!

Home Gardens Recipes

Tomato Time, Salsa Season

Can you believe the wonderful coincidence?  All the ingredients needed for salsa are peaking in the garden.  Nothing is better at the end of a sunny August day than a just-made batch of salsa using freshly picked ingredients.  Our veggies worked all day to convert the sun’s rays into sugars, and now we get to gobble them up!  Check out our basic salsa recipe below, and then experiment and adjust to integrate other fruits and veggies you have on hand. All quantities are approximate – we allow them to ebb and flow depending on what is coming out of the garden.  We use a food processor to chop up the ingredients.  If you don’t have one, you can dice everything by hand to make a chunkier but equally tasty dish.

Basic Salsa Recipe
-Wash tomatoes (5), tomatillos (10), onions (2), bell/sweet peppers (2), jalapeño/hot pepper (1), and cilantro (small bunch)
-Chop into large chunks using a paring knife, depositing the tomatoes and tomatillos into one bowl, and the onions, peppers, and cilantro into a second.  This cutting step ensures that you won’t get left with any huge chunks after a quick blend in the food processor.  We’ve found that separating the soft (tomato and tomatillo) and hard (pepper and onion) ingredients allows us to achieve a better final consistency.
-Blend your soft ingredients briefly.  Make sure all chunks are small (but not liquified).  Dump into your mixing bowl.
-Blend your hard ingredients.  This may take a bit longer.  Make sure all onions and hot peppers are processed small enough to avoid startlingly spicy mouthfuls when eating.
-Stir together both batches.
-Use a fine colander or sieve to remove nearly all of the liquid (save for drinking or soup)
-Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to your strained salsa.  If you don’t have tomatillos (or even if you do), you may also want to add a squirt of lime juice.
-Stir and taste.  Adjust.  Enjoy!

Our basic fresh salsa, ready to eat
In this batch, we added peaches and corn to our ingredient list! Highly recommended, especially if you have these fresh ingredients available in August where you live.
Dinner of corn on the cob; rice; garlicky black beans with sweet red peppers and toasted cumin, corn chips, and two salsas. Mmm!
Home Gardens Musings Personal Sustainability: How-To

I Love Sungolds

The title of this post was originally “Porch Container Gardening.”  When it comes right down to it, however, the title that made the final cut is a much more accurate expression of the highlights of my week.  I couldn’t have agreed more with the recent NYTimes article headline: Summer’s Treasure.  When I think August, my mind goes immediately to sungold tomatoes, fortex green beans, and me-picked blueberries.  Now that I’m down south in Boston (and with urban heat), I guess this summer dream can come true by the last week of July! I harvested my first cherry tomato last week and my first handful a few days ago.

Now that I’m down south in Boston, I also find myself living on the second floor of a three story apartment building.  Luckily I have a porch!  Living here has taught me that plants work really hard to grow and produce fruit.  This survival instinct comes in handy when gardening in unconventional places.  Give a plant access to mid-day and afternoon sun (even if it needs to peek out from under a roof to get it) and enough soil, and it will do the rest.

I guess there are a few more complications.  Mid summer, outdoor pots need daily deep watering.  Potted plants really do need enough soil.  I grow my tomatoes with one or two marigolds in a four gallon bucket.  Peppers, basil, baby greens, dill, mint and cilantro can grow in smaller pots.  Fruiting plants generally produce slightly smaller fruit but the flavor is amazingly concentrated.  Leafy plants are often smaller than their in-ground friends.  Container gardeners must also keep an eye out for nutrition deficiencies.  Using a organic fertilizer meant for general growth and plant health about once a month is probably a good idea.  To tempt pollinators up to my tomatoes, I also make sure to have some flowers blooming among the veggies.  I take advantage of the ceiling above to trellis climbing or viney plants.

I’ve loved my porch gardens over the past few years.  They grow and evolve, but a few things are consistant: they green up the porch – our outdoor room for the summer, they significantly supplement my veggie intake during the summer and fall, they solicit curious craning-neck glances from passers by and are a great start to many conversations!