How to Reap the Largest Garlic Bulbs in the Summer from a Fall Garlic Planting

Growing Garlic in the City:  Fall Planting for Summer Harvest

By Cyndy Crist

This year's garlic (by Cyndy Crist)
This year’s garlic (by Cyndy Crist)

I am determined to grow better garlic.  Given how much I use it in the kitchen, I want an ample supply of fat white or purple heads from my own little potager. However, although every clove I’ve planted has produced a new head, they have been much smaller than I’d like.  I’ve just planted a new garlic patch (the timing was just right, coming after the first killing frost and before the first hard freeze) and I thought I’d share the steps I took, based on University of Minnesota Extension research and the experiences of fellow Master Gardeners, that I hope will help me enjoy better results in 2013.

Choosing Garlic

There are essentially two types of garlic: softneck and hardneck.  For a climate like Minnesota’s, hardneck is generally the best choice, but some softneck varieties can also be successfully grown.  To date, I’ve planted Chesnok Red, Music, and Polish Hardneck, as well as the softneck Inchellium Red. With just a little research, you can easily identify varieties that suit both your growing conditions and palate.

The experts advise against planting garlic purchased in a grocery store for two primary reasons:

  1. One is that this garlic may have been treated to extend its storage life, so planting it may introduce unwanted substances to your soil and/or impede growth.
  2. The second is that commercially available varieties may not be suited to your particular growing conditions.  Using heads purchased at local garden centers or farmers’ markets avoids both problems.
Prepping the soil for garlic-planting (by Cyndy Crist)
Prepping the soil for garlic-planting (by Cyndy Crist)

Getting Ready to Plant

The essential first step is to prepare the soil, working it well to a depth of at least five to six inches. Because my designated space had been well worked in recent years, I didn’t need to do much to loosen the soil.  The key is to ensure that the cloves can easily put down roots, starting in the fall and continuing in the spring.  Removing stones, old roots, and other debris also helps clear the way for growth.

Garlic is a heavy feeder, so once the soil was prepared, I worked in granulated organic manure fertilizer following the directions on the package and made sure it was nicely distributed to a depth of about 5 inches.  This is a step I’ve neglected the last few years, so I’m hopeful this will be a key to bigger bulbs in 2013.

Planting the Garlic

Once my soil was ready, I chose several healthy heads from this year’s crop and separated them into individual cloves.  According to the research, there is no single formula for spacing garlic.  In general, cloves planted close together will yield more, but smaller, heads, while those planted farther apart will yield fewer, but larger, heads.  Although I am seeking larger bulbs, my limited space led me to plant mine about four inches apart, positioning each clove with the base about three inches below the surface and the tip pointing up.  With my well-prepared soil, it was easy to push the cloves down to the desired depth without having to make holes.

Laying out the garlic strategy (by Cyndy Crist)
Laying out the garlic strategy (by Cyndy Crist)

I use two strategies for planting bulbs of all kinds that I find helpful.  One is to place them on the soil about where I intend to plant them, assessing the spacing after doing so in order to determine whether I have space for more or need to prepare a larger bed.  With garlic, since it’s best not to separate cloves until you are ready to plant them (and no more than two days in advance to prevent drying), this strategy helps me preserve the quality of my remaining garlic.

The other is to “refine” the soil as I plant each row or set of cloves/bulbs to help me remember where I have already settled some in.  I have noticed that no matter how much I think I’m paying attention, once the cloves or bulbs are planted and I’ve turned away to grab more, I lose the sense of where they are buried.  By stopping regularly to break up small clods of soil, remove any remaining debris, and smooth the surface, I can easily see where planting is already done.

Finishing the Job

Watering in the garlic (by Cyndy Crist)
Watering in the garlic (by Cyndy Crist)

Once my garlic was planted, I thoroughly watered it in.  For a situation like this one, I used a watering can with a rose since it distributes the water evenly over a large surface.  By contrast, a harder stream from a hose or a watering can with a spout can displace newly planted cloves, pushing them too close together or toward the surface.  Finally, to discourage digging by squirrels, which seem magnetically drawn to freshly turned soil, I sprinkled some blood meal over the surface.  I have found this to work well to discourage animals from digging in newly planted spaces, and since garlic is a heavy nitrogen feeder, the blood meal will also support growth.

I still have one more step to take before I’m done for the winter, and that’s to put down a three-to-four inch layer of mulch, preferably straw (though I often use leaves from my neighbors’ silver maple, which dry and curl nicely and thus make a cover that maintains a thick layer of insulation without becoming matted down). This will protect the garlic from the harshest winter low temperatures as well as the heaving that can result from freezing and thawing cycles typical of northern winters. I’ll put it on in four to six weeks, depending on the weather.

When warm temperatures return next year, I’ll remove the mulch (though I could leave it on), apply fish emulsion, and keep the bed well watered.  I’ll cut the scapes once they’ve formed loops and begun to straighten (using them in cooking much as I would green garlic, another benefit of growing one’s own), and I’ll dig the cloves once one or two leaves have begun to turn yellow, using a large garden fork with care so that I don’t cut into the cloves or disturb any that are not ready to be lifted.

Given the vagaries of weather from one year to the next, how well this crop of garlic will grow remains to be seen. I’m hoping for bigger, fatter heads than I’ve grown to date; whether I’ll achieve my goal remains to be seen. At least I’ll know I took the right steps.  And if my bulbs are still small, I’ll blame it on Mother Nature.

Addendum from Dorothy

Tips for Growing Garlic on the Small Farm:

(based only on my own experiences)

For Larger Bulbs:

  • Spring garlic in MN from unmulched beds (Stainbrook)
    Spring garlic in MN from unmulched beds (Stainbrook)

    The most reliable way to get larger bulbs is to plant large cloves.  They increase in size every year and if you save them over time, you will continue to increase the size of your bulb.  If I am starting new plants, I order bulbs from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, a company that has provided me with the largest bulbs for the best price in the past.  They also have a wide selection of varieties.

  • Cut off the scapes (the green part of the plant that makes a curl-le-que in the early summer).  You can cook that part of the plant for a mild garlic flavoring to dishes, and it allows the bulb in the ground to receive all of the growing energy at an opportune time (when the bulb is sizing up)
  • The distance apart that I plant the cloves is based on the size of the bulb that I am starting with.  You can assume that you should get a bulb next summer that is slightly larger than the bulb you are starting with, so I try to plant the cloves about the distance that would allow the bulbs to grow freely without growing into each other.  I do try to get them as close together as possible however to avoid weeding as much.
  • Keeping the garlic bed weed free is critical to bulb size.  The weeds compete heavily with the bulbs and decrease the size.

Mulching and Timing:

  • Spacing of large garlic cloves - Spring (Stainbrook)
    Spacing of large garlic cloves – Spring (Stainbrook)

    Mulching is really, really important.  I have grown garlic over the years in bare soil (as pictured in the photo to the right), and I have grown garlic mulched heavily with straw.  Based on my observations, hardneck garlic will grow fine in our MN winters without mulch, but the weeds get started much earlier in a bare bed and are much more difficult to control

  • Planting Timing:  I have planted garlic as late as Thanksgiving and as early as late-September.  Each of the past 14 years has yielded a successful crop.  Planting early can be problematic if the garlic starts to sprout before winter sets in.  If it does, just make sure and cover it well with straw and you should be fine.  Planting late can be problematic if it gets really cold early and the garlic has not had time to start roots.  It all pretty much depends on what the weather decides to do in late fall and winter.  The main thing is…don’t worry too much.  Garlic, like most plants, wants to grow and it will adapt to a wide range of farmer mistakes.  Just take care of those weeds and water!
  • Harvesting Timing:  In Forest Lake, MN my harneck garlic is usually ready for harvest in early July.  A harvesting cue is to harvest when half to three-quarters of the leaves turn yellow-brown.

Harvesting & Curing:

  • Harvesting:  On the farm in Forest Lake, MN, I harvest garlic with a straight-tined fork implement (like the one in Cyndys photo above).  I place the fork on the side of a garlic row, push it into the ground about six inches with my foot and angle it underneath the garlic to loosen the dirt.  The bulbs can then be pulled up and out easily by the green stems.  Shake them off or brush off the caked dirt and leave the stems and roots attached.
  • Curing:  I then take the garlic to my shop, which is unheated and well-venilated (i.e., drafty).  I lay the garlic out in rows on the open-wire shelves that I start my plants on.  Some people hang the garlic from rafters, which is great also.  The key is to get cool-air circulation around the individual bulbs for about 4 weeks.
  • Storing:  When your garlic is thoroughly cured (4-6 weeks), trim the roots, taking care not to knock off the outer skin. Cut off the stalks about 1½ inches above the bulb if you plan to keep the garlic in bags. Recycled mesh onion bags are perfect for storage.


Cold Soups for Warm, Late Summer Meals: A Tale of Four Gazpachos

by Cyndy Crist

Four Different Gazpachos (by Cyndy Crist)
Four Different Gazpachos (by Cyndy Crist)

Although we’re creeping closer to fall, it’s still cold soup season as far as I’m concerned, and a number of recent blog posts and foodie e-mails have made it clear that I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Sure, the nights may be getting a little cooler and the mid-summer humidity may be diminishing, but there are undoubtedly still be plenty of warm days ahead.  Whether you’re a working adult with kids back in school or simply a busy person, having a pitcher or bowl of cold soup on hand, ready to pour or spoon out for a quick meal, can be a real life-saver.

Happily, cold soups are relatively quick and easy to make and will stay fresh for days in the refrigerator.  Gazpacho is one of the cold soups with the longest traditions, and there are many ways to make it.  It is interesting to read the array of opinions about what comprises “real” gazpacho.  For example, although most of us today likely think of it as a tomato-based soup, its origins in Spain pre-date the arrival in Europe of tomatoes, native to Mexico and Central America.  Instead, bread was the essential ingredient, pounded with water, vinegar, salt, garlic, and olive oil.  On the other hand, I had a good friend who spent years in Spain and married a Spaniard who swore that bread had no place in gazpacho.  Go figure!

Regardless of its history, today it appears to be made most commonly from tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and seasonings (and sometimes bread).  Because its flavor rests primarily on the quality of its fresh ingredients, I wait to make it until they all are available from local growers.  The recipe I have used most often is from the first Barefoot Contessa cookbook.  It’s straight-forward and calls for standard ingredients.

I vary it by using sherry vinegar, replacing tomato juice with more fresh tomatoes, and adding a little Piment d’Espelette (Basque red pepper) for a bit of spice.  Sometimes I’ll adjust the quantity of tomatoes I use based on what kind I’ve been able to find and how meaty or juicy they are. And if I’m unable to find English or hothouse cucumbers, I partially peel tougher-skinned varieties. You’ll find the complete recipe below along with notes about how I tweak it.

I like using red peppers and red onions, as specified in Ina’s recipe, which give the gazpacho a lovely deep, tomato-red color.  But my imagination was sparked by a recent post on that lovely-to-look-at blog by Beatrice Peltre, La Tartine Gourmande.  She wrote about making gazpacho using only yellow or orange tomatoes and peppers, and the same week, Food and Wine magazine’s “The Dish” included a recipe for Tangy Green Zebra gazpacho.  So I decided to try making my own rainbow of soups.

The Tangy Green Zebra recipe called for lime juice, mint, cilantro, jalapeno, and avocado in addition to the traditional tomato, cucumber, onion, and garlic. I didn’t have any cilantro on hand and I had only bought a green bell pepper, so I added a bit of lime zest and splash of hot sauce to “up” the tang, and I decided to hold the avocado until the soup was served.  From my initial tasting, I found this one refreshing and really liked what the lime and mint added. I do want to try it with avocado and cilantro, perhaps serving it with corn chips and a dollop of sour cream.

In making the yellow gazpacho, I decided to follow the “citrus for acid” approach and substituted fresh lemon juice for vinegar.  I also decided to peel the cucumber before pulsing it in the food processor to maintain a purer yellow color. Beyond that, I used what I think of as the typical ingredients – tomatoes, pepper, onion, garlic, and olive oil in addition to the previously mentioned ingredients.  This one has the lightest flavor of the four gazpachos I made and is very refreshing.  I think it would be tasty garnished with chopped, boiled shrimp or hard-boiled eggs.

For the orange gazpacho, I decided to leave the peel on the cucumber to see how it would look, and I frankly liked the little flecks of green, which gave it a fresh and hearty appearance.  For the acid in this one, I decided to use Melfor Condiment, an Alsacian vinegar that is made using honey and herbs and is slightly lighter and sweeter than an average vinegar.  I thought it gave the soup a lovely flavor and that overall this one came a little closer in taste than the others to “typical” gazpacho.  La Tartine Gourmande showed it garnished with flakes of crab, and I think a crumbly white cheese would be tasty, too.

There are two other variations on gazpacho that I want to try but haven’t yet. One is gazpacho made using watermelon.  I think I’d like the sweetness the melon would impart, as well as the beautiful color, and suspect its texture would somewhat mimic that of cucumber.  A watermelon-tomato gazpacho recipe offered on-line in “The Dish” included hot chili pepper, garlic, and red wine vinegar along with the watermelon and tomatoes and called for serving the soup with a dollop of crab salad made using lemon juice, buttermilk, olive oil, avocado, and poblano pepper.

Gazpacho Shots (by Cyndy Crist)
Gazpacho Shots (by Cyndy Crist)

The other variation that intrigues me, and which could be made any time of year, is white gazpacho. Most recipes I’ve seen include green grapes, almonds, and bread, and one found in the same edition of “The Dish” as the green and watermelon gazpachos included cooked cauliflower, bread, pine nuts, garlic, shallots, cucumber, almonds, sherry vinegar, and olive oil.  Although this one would, in both flavor and texture, be the most unlike tomato gazpacho, I think it’s worth a try.

One more thought about gazpacho.  My husband likes big bowls of it, while I prefer gazpacho served in a smaller quantity.  And going really small, when I entertain large groups of people, I love to serve soup shots.  They require no silverware, look really beautiful on a tray, and give me an opportunity to use the array of small glasses I’ve acquired over the years.  But if you prefer, by all means, serve and eat it in large bowls.  Gazpacho is light, refreshing, and healthy, so there’s no reason to be stingy with it.  Eat hearty!


From The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten


  • 2 hothouse cucumbers, halved and seeded, but not peeled
  • 3 red peppers, cored and seeded
  • 8 plum tomatoes
  • 2 red onions
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 46 ounces tomato juice (6 cups)
  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup good olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper


  1. Roughly chop the cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and red onions into 1-inch cubes. Put each vegetable separately into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until it is coarsely chopped.  Do not overprocess!
  2. After each vegetable is processed, combine them in a large bowl and add the garlic, tomato juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Mix well and chill before serving. The longer gazpacho sits, the more the flavors develop.  Serves 8-10

Cook’s Notes:  I coarsely chop the garlic and process it with the onions. I substitute sherry vinegar for the white wine vinegar and add a teaspoon or so of Piment d’Espelette.  I taste for seasoning before adding the full quantity of salt, as I find that Ina’s recipes are sometimes a bit salty for my taste.

You can find Piment d’Espelette and Melfor Condiment French vinegar (as mentioned earlier in the post) at as well as from specialty food purveyors.

Freezing Tomatoes, Pesto & Chutney to Enjoy in Winter Dishes

by Cyndy Crist

Platter of fresh heirloom tomatoes (by Cyndy Crist)
Platter of fresh heirloom tomatoes (by Cyndy Crist)

Despite the super-hot summer we’ve had and the fact that we’re only in mid-August, just a few cool nights and chilly mornings have already sparked thoughts about preserving the bounty of the summer garden for the long, cold days of winter ahead.   Even though I’m certain Mother Nature has some more hot days in store for us this year out our way in Minnesota, it still makes sense to take advantage of the wealth of tomatoes, basil, and other fruits, vegetables, and herbs at Farmers’ Markets and in one’s own garden right now.

I have four favorite things to do with tomatoes and herbs that involve freezing, my preferred way to “put up” much of the garden’s bounty (and a recent project involving water bath canning reminded me why that’s the case!).  One involves a maximum of five minutes of work.  The others are also easy, if slightly more complicated.  Let’s start with the easiest and move on from there.

Freezing Whole Tomatoes:

2011 Frozen Smoked Whole Tomatoes
2011 Frozen Smoked Whole Tomatoes

For simplicity, there’s nothing quite like freezing whole tomatoes.  All I do is wash and dry the tomatoes, pop them into Ziplock bags, squeeze out as much air as possible, and throw them in the freezer.  I’ve read suggestions to peel them first, but I find that the skins pull off easily as they thaw and/or cook, and with the peel on, they are more easily separated when removed from the freezer.  I primarily freeze Roma tomatoes since I tend to use them in pasta sauces, chili, and other dishes in which their proportionally meatier nature is a plus, but this year I plan to freeze some other varieties as well.  There’s nothing quite like being able to use unprocessed whole tomatoes of superior quality in winter-time cooking.

Freezer Pesto:

Fresh Basil Plant (by Cyndy Crist)
Fresh Basil Plant (by Cyndy Crist)

Only slightly more work to make is freezer pesto.  I love pesto, and since large bunches of basil at summer and fall Farmers’ Markets are so much cheaper, fresher, and better than those purchased in the winter, this is the time to make it, especially since it freezes so well.  I follow Marcella Hazan’s directions to mix the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in a food processor until smooth and creamy and add the cheese (she recommends both parmesan and Romano cheese, though I often use only parmesan) only after the lovely green sludge is thawed and ready to use.  If you sometimes use pesto in small quantities, you can freeze it in ice cube trays, popping the frozen cubes into a plastic bag to maintain the flavor during storage.  Otherwise, any size or shape of freezer-safe container will do.

Hazan’s proportions are:

  • Frozen Pesto (by Cyndy Crist)
    Frozen Pesto (by Cyndy Crist)
    • ½ cup of olive oil
    • 3 tablespoons of pine nuts
    •  2 garlic cloves
    • per 2 cups of tightly packed basil leaves
    • salt to taste
    • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan and
    • 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Romano added before serving.

This is the time to use your very best extra virgin olive oil, and please don’t even think of using the “parmesan” from that green canister. The recipe also calls for adding 3 tablespoons of softened butter at this point.  While I suspect this would make it rich and delicious and as much as I love butter, this has never seemed necessary to me.  In fact, I don’t always add cheese. I’m not being lazy; sometimes I just want to savor the nutty, garlicky, herbal flavor of the sauce sans dairy products.  In any case, a spoonful of pesto on pasta or a crostini is like a bite of summer at any time of the year, and it’s wonderful stirred into many soups (think pistou).

Freezer Tomato Sauce:

Gathering Ingredients for Tomato Sauce (by Cyndy Crist)
Gathering Ingredients for Tomato Sauce (by Cyndy Crist)

Another great thing to freeze is tomato sauce, something that can be as simple as cooking tomatoes, onions, and garlic with olive oil, salt, and pepper (which also offers maximum flexibility for its later use) or that can be given a more complex flavor with the addition of other vegetables and/or herbs.  One of the recipes I’m going to try was published in the August 13 “Dining” section of the New York Times as part of their remembrance of Julia Child on the occasion of what would have been her 100th birthday.  It is a slight simplification of a recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1, and it sounds both versatile and delicious.

The adaptation offered by Julia Moskin primarily differs from Julia Child’s recipe in that Moskin doesn’t peel and seed the tomatoes. I think I’m going to split the difference between the two versions, seeding but not peeling them. I’m also wondering about how much difference it would make to use fresh rather than dried orange peel and will likely find out, since I don’t have dried peel on hand (I could probably find it at Penzeys, but how often would I actually use it?).  Here’s the recipe as printed in the New York Times:

Coulis de Tomates a la Provencale

(Tomato Sauce with Mediterranean Flavors)

Adapted by Julia Moskin from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child


  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2/3 cup minced yellow onions
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
  • 5-6 pounds ripe tomatoes, quartered
  • 1/8 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press
  • Herb bouquet: 8 sprigs parsley, 1 bay leaf and 4 sprigs thyme tied in cheesecloth
  • ¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
  • ½ teaspoon dried basil, oregano, marjoram or savory
  • Large pinch saffron threads
  • 12 coriander seeds, lightly crushed
  • 2-inch piece dried orange peel (or ½ teaspoon granules)
  • 2-3 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)

1. In a large heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-low heat.  Add onions, sprinkle with salt and cook slowly for about 10 minutes, until tender but not browned.  Sprinkle on flour and cook slowly for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally; do not brown.

2. Meanwhile, fit a food processor with the coarse grating blade. Working in batches, push tomatoes through feed tube to make a coarse puree.

3. Stir tomatoes, sugar, garlic, herb bouquet, fennel, basil, saffron, coriander, orange peel and 1 teaspoon salt into pot. Cover and cook slowly for 10 minutes, so the tomatoes will render their juice. Uncover and simmer for about an hour, until thick. The sauce is done when it tastes cooked and is thick enough to form a mass in the spoon. Remove herb bouquet and taste. Season with salt, pepper, sugar and tomato paste, and simmer two minutes more. Sauce may be used immediately, refrigerated or frozen for up to 6 months. Yields about 1 quart.

Putting up Tomato Chutney:

Finally, I’m a great lover of chutneys, and one of my favorites to make is Hot Tomato Chutney, a recipe from The Herbal Pantry by Emilie Tolley and Chris Mead.  They suggest this chutney as a good accompaniment to cold meats and chicken.  I love to spread it on sandwiches (turkey and chicken are favorites but it’s also great with ham) and to spoon it on scrambled eggs or over cream cheese and served with crackers as an hors d’oeuvres.  It’s also wonderful as part of a cheese course, working equally well, I think, with creamy goat cheeses and aged cheddars.

Hot Tomato Chutney (by Cyndy Crist)
Hot Tomato Chutney (by Cyndy Crist)

I love making chutneys, which fill the house with their spicy, fruity, sweet/sour scent.  I generally follow this recipe exactly as written, although I sometimes use only one jalapeno or substitute a slightly milder pepper.  You’ll note that this one can be processed in a hot-water bath if that’s your preference.  But I’ll stick with freezing – call me lazy, but I find that so much less fuss and the end results are great.

Hot Tomato Chutney
From The Herbal Pantry by Emilie Tolley and Chris Mead

3 pounds ripe tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 large red pepper, chopped
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
½ cup raisins
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup chopped cilantro

Place all the ingredients except the cilantro in a large non-aluminum saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved.  Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 30 minutes. Stir in the cilantro for the last few minutes of cooking. Pack in sterilized jars and seal. Freeze or process in a hot-water bath for 15 minutes.

Addendum from Dorothy on more ways to preserve tomatoes for winter:

How-to Dry your Heirloom Tomatoes
How-to Dry your Heirloom Tomatoes

Drying (or Dehydrating) Tomatoes:

For another great way to preserve those heirloom tomatoes for winter, you can visit this link.  It is an earlier post on drying tomatoes, in particular the Principe Borghese heirloom tomato.



Purchased Chutneys:

One of HeathGlen's Chutneys
One of HeathGlen’s Chutneys

Of course, if you want to turn the preserving over to someone else, you can always purchase a chutney from HeathGlen’s website .  The Cranberry-Port Wine-Sage Chutney that will be available from HeathGlen in mid-October will be in the feature article of SAVEUR’s November 2012 issue, and a blueberry chutney or stone fruit chutney usually makes appearance in the store in October.

Heirloom Tomatoes: Pictures of Earliest Varieties to Arrive in MN in 2012

Early Heirloom Tomatoes:

First Tomatoes at HeathGlen in MN (mid-July)
First Tomatoes at HeathGlen in MN (mid-July)

When I sell the heirloom tomato plants at the St. Paul Farmers’ market in early spring, customers are always curious about “when” they’ll get their tomatoes.  The answer is definitely one of those, “it depends”  qualifiers.  It depends on which variety you choose, it depends on how big the plant is when you buy it, it depends on your soil and microclimate, but MOSTLY  it depends on the weather and Mother Nature.  This year (2012), the heirloom tomatoes at our farm in Forest Lake, MN are definitely early.  By a good two weeks.

Maturity Dates:

Most seed catalogs offer descriptions of  the heirloom variety characteristics, including a number signifying the  “days to maturity”.  I always hesitate to tell people what those numbers are for each tomato variety.  In my experience, the number is only meaningful on a relative scale, and people tend to treat numbers as absolutes.  One variety is going to be earlier than another variety, for example, if the number of days to maturity is less, but rarely do the tomatoes follow these maturity dates with any precision.

Smaller is Usually Earlier:

The first tomatoes to appear in any given season tend to be the smaller tomatoes, like the cherries.  I have also had reliable earliness with the Bloody Butcher variety of heirloom (my pick for the most flavorable early tomato that is not a cherry).  I have tried Manitoba, Oregon Spring, Stupice, and several other early heirloom varieties, which all have great flavor for early tomatoes, but none of these have been as early as Bloody Butcher.  A new early heirloom I tried this year was the Raspberry Lyanna.   It was the earliest of all of my tomatoes (July 10th), and it had none of the typical heirloom imperfections (green shoulders, cracking, etc .),  but the flavor was fairly mild.  My taste runs toward the bolder, higher acid tomatoes so this was not one of my favorites for flavor.

Cherry & Plum Tomatoes at HeathGlen Farm 2012
Cherry & Plum Tomatoes at HeathGlen Farm 2012

The other early tomatoes include the cherry tomatoes.  Cherry Roma was a new one for me this year and I will definitely grow it again – great taste, prolific, and no cracking.  Black Mauri was another new variety that I am happily surprised with.  Black Mauri, a dark plum tomato, came on the same time as the cherries, but has a much deeper flavor profile than a cherry.  Principe Borghese is the most prolific of all the small tomatoes (it is determinate), and my “go-to’ tomato for sun-drying.  Principe Borghese has that bolder flavor that you would expect with an Italian tomato (think tomato sauce).

Earliest Black Tomatoes:

Earliest Black Heirloom Tomatoes at HeathGlen- 2012
Earliest Black Heirloom Tomatoes at HeathGlen- 2012

Following the first flush of the smaller tomatoes were the “black” tomatoes (they are called black tomatoes and are typically of Russian origin, but they are really a dark purple or dark pink).  The black tomatoes were the first of the larger, main-season tomatoes to appear, starting with Paul Robeson.  Carbon, Black Krim, Vorlon, and Black (or Black Russian) were 2-3 days later than Mr. Robeson.  I love the rich, complex taste of these black tomatoes, and last year I found Carbon and Vorlon to have the deepest flavor.   Usually the main-season tomatoes develop their unique flavors more as the season goes on, so I will wait until late August-early September to do a 2012 taste test between the black varities.

Earliest Orange, Yellow & Striped Tomatoes:

Earliest Yellow Heirloom Tomatoes at HeathGlen - 2012
Earliest Yellow Heirloom Tomatoes at HeathGlen – 2012

On the heels of the black tomatoes were the yellow-gold tomatoes and some of the striped tomatoes, including Juane Flammee, Manyel, Limmony, Striped Roman, Tigerella and Gold Medal.  The large orange tomatoes, including Persimmon, Kelloggs, and Hughs are still green as of August 3rd, as are the Green Zebra, Hillbilly, Mr. Stripey, and White Queen.  Taste comparisons of these tomatoes will follow in a separate post.


Earliest Red and Pink Heirloom Tomatoes:

Earliest Red Tomatoes at HeathGlen - 2012
Earliest Red Tomatoes at HeathGlen – 2012


As noted above, the earliest of all of my tomatoes this year was the Bloody Butcher (a red) and the Raspberry Lyanna (a pink).  The main-season red & pink heirlooms that are “relatively” early include Prudens Purple, Aussie and Carmello.  Bali, a new variety for me which is small and pink and ribbed, was also early and prolific.  Later varieties that are abundant, but still green include Brandywine, Dona (a surprise that it is late),  Cosmonaut Volkov, Box Car Willy and Santa Clara Canner.

All in all, this looks to be a stellar year for heirloom tomatoes (and peppers).  Mother Nature played some cruel jokes on us this spring however, giving us early strawberries and blueberries, but then snatching the harvest away quickly with too much heat.  We shall see how long the tomato season lasts, but one thing for sure is that it is early this year in Forest Lake, MN.

Earliest Pink Heirloom Tomatoes at HeathGlen - 2012
Earliest Pink Heirloom Tomatoes at HeathGlen – 2012

How about your season so far?  What are the earliest tomato varieties you are seeing?  Please share, I’d love to know and compare!

Happy Trails and May Your Growing Season be Long and Plentiful!



Growing Herbs for Tomato Dishes, Summer Cooking & Garden Beauty

By Cyndy Crist

Herb Garden - by Cyndy Crist
Herb Garden – by Cyndy Crist

Herbs for Small Gardens:

Herbs can be one of the most rewarding things to grow in a small garden, and while I’m guessing most of us grow them primarily to be used in cooking, they have other values as well.   For example, many are quite attractive (I love the look of feathery fennel, the deep red leaves of some basils, and the flowers of pineapple sage); some are grown for their fragrance more than their flavor (lavender being an obvious example); and others can look beautiful in fresh or dried arrangements (again, think fennel and lavender). Still, for me, the primary purpose is culinary and that will be my focus here.

Growing  Tips on Specific Herbs:

Lovage and Chives - photo by Cyndy Crist
Lovage and Chives – photo by Cyndy Crist

Happily, most herbs are quite easy to grow.  Most require full sun and even moisture, but some can thrive in otherwise difficult locations. For example, many Mediterranean herbs do well grown next to hot pavement or stones; thyme and chamomile can stand up to foot traffic and still thrive; and mint can grow in somewhat soggy spaces. Many herbs are quite hardy in most USDA zones (English thyme, oregano, lovage, chives, and tarragon among them); some will survive through mild winters in my zone 4 garden if well covered (sage is one); and some common herbs, like parsley, are biennials that will grow for two years before needing to be replaced.

In addition, some annual herbs will self-seed and return beyond their “inaugural” year if the ground around them is left largely undisturbed. Borage, with its beautiful blue blossoms, and sunny calendula are two that have made repeat visits in my garden, and chamomile is another prolific self-seeder (with some varieties also hardy in many zones).  Of course, self-seeding isn’t always a blessing.  Take garlic chives, for example. When they’re blooming, I love the look they add to my kitchen garden, and I like to use both the leaves and the blossoms in salads.  However, they are notorious self-seeders, and I find myself pulling out new plants by the handful during the growing season.  I’d save myself lots of headaches if I was more vigilant about deadheading them before they set seed.

Some perennial herbs have proven themselves to be thugs that I’ve worked hard to remove from my garden and others require a close eye to keep them in check.  I made the mistake of planting Tansy once and it took a lot of digging to remove the shoots that popped up throughout the bed.  I’ve also grown two oreganos and loved their looks initially (the Greek for its purple flowers and the golden for the way its rambling leaves lit up a mostly green garden), but they eventually spread far beyond their intended spaces. Since oregano is about the only herb I prefer to use dried in cooking anyway, I gladly removed it from the garden.  Mint is notorious for spreading far and wide, and even sinking a pot in the ground won’t keep it in check if the pot has a drainage hole; as a result, I now only grow it in pots on my porch.

Perennial Herb Favorites:

While I highly value some perennial herbs, many of my favorites are annuals that must be planted each year. Since I can’t imagine my little potager without them, I gladly plant basil and chervil every year, and I also add at least one lemony herb, most often lemon verbena or lemon grass.  I also always have Italian parsley in my garden, so that gets planted every other year, and if my sage doesn’t survive the winter, I plant a replacement of that as well.   With both basil and sage, I often plant more than one variety to bring visual variety to the garden and the table.

Rosemary and Parsley - photo by Cyndy Crist
Rosemary and Parsley – photo by Cyndy Crist

I also love rosemary and grow it in a big pot that sits in the kitchen garden from late spring until late fall and then moves into the sunroom for the winter.  I’ve generally had quite good luck over-wintering plants of a mature size (e.g., the stem has become woody and strong).  In fact, I had one that I kept growing for six or eight years at least, and I didn’t lose it until the summer that it drowned from overwatering because, unbeknownst to me, the roots had become so matted that they had completely closed off the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot.  I briefly mourned its loss, then immediately replaced it since I love having fresh rosemary available throughout the winter.

Among the perennials in my garden are chives, whose leaves and flowers I prize; French sorrel for early spring, lemony tang; lovage, which imparts a celery-like flavor that works especially well in potato dishes; thyme, which can be used in many ways and harvested nearly any time of the year (I’ve been known to sweep snow off it mid-winter); tarragon, so great with chicken; and wild arugula, whose fine-cut leaves offer a peppery bite. Although not considered by most as an herb, I also generally grow several varieties of garlic in my potager; it is an indispensable companion to many herbs in the kitchen.

Growing Herbs for Beauty:

I have focused primarily on growing in a kitchen garden, but it’s worth noting that herbs can be successfully and beautifully grown in any suitable garden space.  For example, bronze fennel can be a lovely companion for pink or white roses, lavender and hyssop add beautiful purple to any perennial border, and thyme and chamomile can create a living carpet between the stones of a garden path.  I’ve also seen curly parsley creating lovely green edging along perennial beds and dill adding a feathery contrast to plants with flat, smooth leaves.  There are also a number of plants that are classified as herbs but generally grown as perennials, including Artemisia (wormwood) and Nepeta (also known as cat mint), or annual flowers, like Nigella and nasturtiums.

Growing Herbs in Containers:

Globe Basil in Container - photo by Cyndy Crist
Globe Basil in Container – photo by Cyndy Crist

Many herbs also lend themselves well to growing in containers.  Since this makes them movable, you can take advantage of specific growing conditions that suit them  best and place them close to a kitchen or back door for ready cutting for use in the kitchen. As noted earlier, some herbs in pots can be successfully overwintered inside, and rampant and invasive growers like mint can be kept in check.  As with any container growing, the keys are selecting the right soil and right size of pot (for example, tall pots are best suited to herbs that send down deeper roots) and remembering to water regularly throughout the growing season, and especially during the hottest, driest days of summer.

Pairing Herbs with Different Cuisines:

There is no end of ideas about how to use herbs in the kitchen.  The key, I think, is thinking about what kinds of ingredients and culinary styles or traditions you prefer and planting accordingly.  For example,

  • basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, and rosemary are great with tomatoes and tomato-rich dishes;
  • chervil, parsley, chives, and tarragon are backbones of French cuisine;
  • many English dishes rely on sage and thyme;
  • dill is a feature of many Scandinavian dishes;
  • Thai basil and lemon grass are much used in many Asian cuisines;
  • basil, oregano, and arugula are essential to Italian culinary traditions; and
  • basil, lemony herbs, and mint can all be wonderful with fruit as well as vegetables.

Great Resource Books on Herbs:

I have built a pretty big collection of herb books over the years. Most offer great advice about growing, cooking with, and saving herbs, and many have wonderful non-culinary and crafting ideas as well.  My oldest and probably most-used herb books were written by Emelie Tolley and photographed by Chris Mead. They inspired my early herb growing and also have aided my hand-made gifting for many Christmases. I especially like Tolley’s Gardening with Herbs for design and hands-on growing guidance, and Gifts from the Herb Garden, which offers lots of edible and decorative project ideas.  The The Harrowsmith Illustrated Book of Herbs is one of two great books in my library by Patrick Lima for that publisher; it is a highly valued part of my collection and one that has become well worn by repeated use.  A newer addition to my shelves is the New Book of Herbs by Jekka McVicar, a beautifully illustrated and comprehensive guide by the woman dubbed “the queen of herbs” by Jamie Oliver.  It is as beautiful to look at as it is informative to read – in other words, strong on both style and substance.

I guess something of the same thing can be said for herbs and why I love growing them. They are both practical and beautiful, great to look at and delicious to eat.  They inspire endless ways to use and enjoy them, singly or in combinations.  As a result, they are very rewarding to grow.  If you haven’t done so already, give them a try.  I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be glad you did.