Category Archives: culinary plants

Preventing Tomatoes From Cracking and Splitting

After months of anticipating ripe, sweet tomatoes, my first harvest came a week ago. Unfortunately, several of the inaugural ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes were cracked around the equator, exposing healthy flesh underneath. Why did this happen and how can it be prevented?

Cracks and splits are a fairly common occurrence. They can start at the stem and run down the side of the fruit, or circle the width of the fruit, like mine did. The good news – the fissures are not the result of a disease, virus or insect. The cause? At least in part – me! On the bright side, I can easily fix it.

Tomatoes crack due to fluctuations of moisture and/or temperature that occur when the fruit is nearly fully mature. In my case, forgetting to water or underwatering a container grown plant on the first few 100 degree days, followed by “forgive me” overwatering for the next few days is the culprit. (Another tip – tomato plants don’t like to get heat wilt. Mine did that too.)

Here’s what happens to cause the fruit to split – during the dry spells, the exterior skin (epidermis) of the fruit toughens. When the plant is watered again, the fruit rapidly takes in the moisture and the fruit plumps up. This expansion causes the toughened skin to burst. Cherry tomatoes and large beefsteak varieties are particularly prone to these stretch or growth marks.

These tips will help prevent tomatoes from cracking and splitting:

  • Tomatoes like consistent moisture at regular intervals. Think of Goldilocks – not too much, not too little. Sounds simplistic, but the point is there’s a delicate balance. Watering on a regular schedule really helps.
  • Use natural mulch such as grass clippings or shredded leaves to keep the plant roots cooler.
  • Fertilize with low dose, slow-release fertilizer; high nitrogen fertilizers stimulate growth which can increase cracking.
  • Pick fruit just before it is fully mature and allow it to ripen on a sunny windowsill.

Some tomato varieties are bred to have more flexible skin and therefore are less likely to crack. When researching next year’s garden tomatoes, look for varieties labeled crack or split-resistant. You may want to give them a try.

Perhaps most importantly – is it OK to eat a cracked tomato? It really depends. Don’t take a chance if the split is deep, the fruit has been on the vine for a long time or you simply aren’t sure. Bacteria can develop in the opening with time. But if the crack has just appeared and the fruit looks healthy despite the scar, it is likely fine. Did I eat mine? I did. And it was worth the wait!

Additional reading: https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/faq/why-are-my-tomatoes-cracking

Photo Credit: Pixabay.com

Posted by Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener

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New Mexico Chiles

serrano-peppers pixabay.com

Serrano peppers Pixabay.com

Twenty one varieties of New Mexico chile peppers, Capsicum annuum, will be  on sale on May 18-19 at the CSU Master Gardener Plant Sale held at Denver’s Harvard Gulch Park.  Grown from the University of New Mexico’s Chile Pepper Institute’s (CPI) seeds, the fruits range from mild and flavorful to bold, smoky and hot.

poblano

Poblano peppers New Mexico State University Chili Pepper Institute

The plants will mature in late summer and grow well in Colorado conditions. Mild selections include ‘Conquisstador’ (nonpungent, smooth fruit, strong vines) and ‘Trick or Treat’ (no heat with habanero flavor). ‘NuMex Heritage 6-4’ (award winning fruit, great for green chili), ‘NuMex Joe. E. Parker’ (high yield, excellent for red and green chili) and ‘NuMex Sandia Select’ (high heat level) are among the hot cultivars we’ll have on hand. Find the complete plant list here.

Read on to learn more about New Mexico chile origins, research and growing techniques.

Chiles are native to South America, where they are perennial shrubs. In the United States, with few exceptions such as southern California and parts of Florida and Texas, the plants are grown as annuals. It has been said that New Mexico is to chile peppers what Napa Valley is to wine grapes. The area’s arid climate, hot summers and soil make chile growing conditions ideal. Given Colorado’s similar conditions, the plants grow well here, too.

Scoville_Wilbur_Prof_med

Wilbur Scoville, 1865-1942 New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute

Heat and flavor of chile varieties vary greatly and have been studied extensively.  In 1912, mild-mannered appearing Wilbur Scoville developed a system for measuring the feisty flavor of chiles that is still in use today.

According to the CPI, “The heat level of a chile pepper is expressed in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Scoville Heat Units are intended for comparison only because heat levels can fluctuate greatly from location, and even from pod to pod on the same plant. Chile peppers range in heat from 0 SHU (Bell Pepper) to more than 2,000,000 SHU (Trindad Moruga Scorpion).”

Chile peppers contain chemical compounds called capsaicinoids.  When ingested, capsaicinoids send a message to our brains that the pepper is hot. In large doses capsaicin can burn and irritate humans and mammals. As birds do not have the brain receptors to register this heat sensation, they feel none of the adverse effects of the compound. Because of this, birds are responsible for spreading wild pepper seeds.

The seeds are often, but erroneously, touted as the hottest part of the pepper. In reality, the white flesh near the seeds contain the most capsaicin. When cooking with peppers, leave or remove the ribs depending on your sensitivity.

Beyond heat, chiles offer a wide range of complex flavors. Dr Paul Bosland of the CPI identified five heat profile components. Chile lovers have surely experienced these sensations:

  • Development: Is the heat sensation felt immediately or 5, 15 or 30 seconds later?
  • Duration: How long does the heat linger?
  • Location: Where is the heat sensation felt? Lips, front of mouth, tip of tongue, throat?
  • Feeling: Is it a pin-prick sensation or an overall sensation or does it coat the area?
  • Intensity: Measured by Scoville Heat Units and commonly called mild, medium or hot fruit.

If you’re eager to plant your chiles right now, a word of caution. Plants should be hardened off after the danger of frost by exposing them to outdoor temperatures for longer periods of time daily. Plant in the ground when daytime temperatures hover around 70 degrees and over night temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees.

Before planting, incorporate compost to fortify the soil. Throughout the season, use a balanced fertilizer (5-10-5 or 10-10-10).  Watch for the inevitable dry spells  as plants need at least 2 inches of moisture a week, especially after fruit sets. Night time temperature is critical for flowers to set and is ideally between 65-80 degrees.

What’s your favorite chile pepper? Please share in the comments!

For more information:

Plant Talk Colorado: Chile Peppers

Growing Colorado Peppers, Colorado Farm to Table/Colorado State University

“What’s So Hot About Chili Peppers” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2009

Posted by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener

 

 

Colorado Blueberries: A Success Story

Blueberries grown in peat moss bales

Make no mistake about it, blueberry plants want what Colorado’s soils can’t deliver – high acidity. Attempts to grow them in our alkaline soil will frustrate the most accomplished gardener. However, research at Colorado State University found the plants can be grown successfully in this region when planted directly into a bale of peat moss, which has been tucked into the garden bed. The process is described in detail here.

Five years ago, armed with bales of peat, solid research and determination, Denver Master Gardener Jill Fielder decided to add blueberries to her raised beds. Given the proper environment, regular care and careful plant selection, she’s been enjoying berries every summer since.

According to Jill, “Blueberries are both insect and wind pollinated and the bees love ours. Most experts believe that blueberries set great yields when there’s cross pollination with another variety that flowers at the same time, so we have a couple different cultivars.” Northcountry Blue (small, flavorful berries, upright habit), Bluegold, (productive with a somewhat sprawling habit) and Bluecrop (large berries, the newest addition) are 3.5′ to 4.5′ feet tall and doing well. Northblue didn’t produce well and was replaced.

Spring buds

Plants were purchased on-line from reputable growers and were planted in the spring. The plants are feed monthly during the growing season with a water soluble fertilizer for acid-loving plants. A drip irrigation system provides moisture.

Jill’s raised beds are in a protected area of her yard, bordered by a fence and garage so she has not covered or wrapped the plants in the winter. However, winter protection is recommended in less protected areas. Late in the winter, plants are trimmed to remove dead or damaged wood and maintain shape.

If you’re looking for a new gardening challenge and can commit to the specific needs of these plants, why not give them a try?

Posted by Linda McDonnell, a Denver Master Gardener, with thanks to Jill Fielder for supplying inspiration and photos.

 

 

 

How Vanilla Gets to Your Kitchen

Will you be doing holiday baking this season? If so, chances are your recipes will include vanilla, an often overlooked kitchen staple, with a name that can be synonymous with bland or uninteresting.  But how vanilla gets to our pantry shelves is really quite a feat, in fact, it is anything but vanilla.

Pure vanilla extract is derived from the orchid Vanilla planifolia, a rambling, vigorous vine which grows on tree trunks, can reach 75′ and is native to Mexico and Central America. The plant’s fragrant, yellow to green flowers bloom for exactly one day and must be pollinated while in full bloom in order to produce a vanilla bean. Adding to the pollination complexity, in the wild, each flower has less than a 1% chance of being visited by the plant-specific pollinator, the stingless bee of the genus Melapona. Given these odds, commercial vanilla producers employ a hand pollination technique. Manual pollination was first attempted in the 1840’s by a clever twelve year old boy who worked in vanilla fields on the island of Réunion, east of Madagascar. Hundreds of years later, essentially the same labor-intensive process is still used at commercial plantations.

The flowers are self fertile – containing both male and female parts. The pollination process involves moving pollen from the flower’s anther to the stigma with a toothpick or finger. If successful, in 5-9 months the flower will produce a green bean-like fruit which will be picked and fermented before becoming the dark brown, prized vanilla pod. Once the pods are dried, they are steeped in an alcohol and water mixture to create the extract we bake with and enjoy as an aromatic in perfumes and household products. This video shows the pollination process – not a job for unsteady hands! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOAi2WeLsCs

A few more vanilla facts:

  • The hand pollination process accounts for 40% of the production cost of vanilla, which is why vanilla is so pricey.
  • The FDA has strict standards for vanilla production.  A gallon of extract must contain more than 13 ounces of ground vanilla beans and have at least 35% alcohol.
  • Since the vanilla plant is not a legume, the” beans”  are not beans at all. They are actually pods. 
  • Spiders don’t like vanilla, so the pods can be used to keep these pests away.
  • Vanillin is an essential compound in vanilla. Surprisingly, it is also found in potatoes.
  • Artificial vanilla is created in a laboratory with by-products of the paper industry. That sure doesn’t sound tasty!

Wishing you a happy holiday season, filled with joy, laughter and new found respect for that humble bottle of vanilla!

Credits:

Photos: Pixabay.com

University of Wisconsin Master Gardener Program, Vanilla planifolia

UW Lax.edu, Vanillaplanifolia

Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener