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The Infamous Nightshade

New variety for Foundroot this year: Diamond Eggplant

Planting season is in full force and as the middle of April comes upon us, I’d like to remind everyone to get those pesky Solanaceous plants in the dirt. Pesky? Yes. Growing peppers, eggplants, and the oh-so-beloved tomato in a chilly climate is a minor nightmare for a new gardener. If it were up to me, no one would even try. We would all be content with our cabbage and potatoes and I wouldn’t have to trial variety after variety trying to find those few plants that don’t quiver and shake during a rainy June evening. But alas, the people want what the people want. Here’s to an unseasonably warm summer and salsa galore.

The Seed Nightshades are a medium seed in terms of hardness and storage length. In general, they can last up to five years if stored properly. There has been a resurgence of the heirloom tomato in the last few years so luckily, there are many open-pollinated options available. Peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes all have perfect flowers so they are some of the easiest seeds to work with for a beginner seed saver.

Growing Nightshades As I mentioned, mid April is about the cut-off for getting these seeds started for a cold climate garden. The first year we lived in Alaska everyone told us that tomatoes needed to be started by Valentines’ Day. We did as we were told and by the beginning of May we were outnumbered about 100:1. Our couches were facing each other in the center of the room, 3 feet apart, and the rest of the house was filled with tomatoes. Needless to say, one does not need that many tomato plants and we missed having company over for months on end. Even if we hadn’t planted so many seeds, the endless up-potting, size of the plants, and moving them in and out to harden off would have been issue enough. Last year we started all our nightshades around this time and even with the late season snow (during the first farmers market) we had wonderful success. Everything was timed perfectly and no one went into transplant shock from being too large before planting. Unless you have a heated greenhouse, April has proven to be plenty of time for us to get healthy plants started.

When starting seeds for larger plants, reducing the amount of up-potting is a key element of survival for the plant and gardener alike. Including compost or worm-castings in the potting mix and going to larger pots than your normally would for the second planting are two ways to reduce that stress. Nightshades don’t like getting their leaves wet so this is an opportunity for bottom watering in closed trays. Filling the bottom tray with water  and allowing the soil to soak it up will help prevent dampening off and keep them healthy from the start. Be sure not to allow the plants to soak in excess water and only water as needed.

With any Alaskan garden plant, I try not to coddle them too much. I after they get their first “true” leaves, it’s time to reduce the heat and start working towards mimicking the conditions they will experience during the season. The lights stay on, no extra soil warmth, and it is helpful wave your hands over the plants to simulate wind and other inclement conditions. Every time they are up-potted, I choke up on the neck and plant 1/4-1/2 the stalk into the soil so they grow strong and stout. These are just some of the early season things you can do to increase success with these fussy plants.

Transplanting Moving nightshades outdoors is one of my least favorite parts of gardening. They are very fragile and need to be hardened off with the utmost care. I harden them off very slowly and wait until there is zero chance of a frost before they go into the ground. This usually entails moving from 1 hour outside in a sheltered area to having them spend the night outside wherever they will ultimately live over the course of 1-2 weeks. We try to grow our tomatoes outdoors without assistance. Many will stay in the hoophouse but our focus is on breeding out the varieties that don’t need extra warming techniques. Very rarely do they go directly into the garden and most end up in hanging baskets and containers in our hottest and sunniest areas. Hopefully in a few generations they will be strong enough to go directly into the ground without any plastic. Until that day, transplanting is the time to start coddling these plants and do whatever it takes to get them growing strong.

Harvest and Storage The end of the season gets very dicey for these tender plants and starting in August it is good to keep a close eye on the overnight weather forecast. This may mean bringing potted plants into a warmer space or covering them with plastic. Harvest all fruit before the frost and it is worth harvesting any green tomatoes to ripen out on the counter. We’ve had tomatoes for months by allowing them to slowly ripen long after the season has ended. It is rare that we have a surplus of these crops but they do well blanched and frozen for later use. Tomatoes are one of the easiest foods to learn how to can and can be enjoyed for a long time to come.

Good Eats Being from the Southwest, I have an endless array of recipes for these veggies that grow so much better down in the hot desert. Here are just a couple of easy ones:

 

Fireside Babaganoush

Adapted from www.davidlebovitz.com

  • 3 medium-sized eggplants
  • 1/2 cup tahini
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Prick eggplant with a fork and place onto a stick or grate over fire, rotating it around until the skin is completely charred. If you are not by a fire, place eggplant directly on a gas grill or stovetop.

Let the eggplant cool and cut it in half lengthwise, drain off the liquid, and scoop the pulp into a blender or food processor.  Add all other ingredients and blend until smooth.

Top with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Serve with warm pita bread or other bread of choice.

 

Pico de Gallo

 
From Bon Appétit

  • 1 1/2 pounds plum tomatoes, seeded, chopped
  • 3/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons minced seeded jalapeño chilies (about 2 medium)
  • 1 garlic clove, minced

Mix all ingredients in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Chill and serve with tortilla chips.

 

 

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