Extending the Growing Season by Overwintering Tender Plants

Rosemary plant brought in for Winter (by Cyndy Crist)
Rosemary plant brought in for Winter (by Cyndy Crist)

By Cyndy Crist

I’ve just completed the annual migration of some of my favorite tender perennials and annuals from the porch and garden into the house to overwinter, since they’d never survive the Minnesota winter outside.   It’s a task that’s easy to accomplish with a little thought in advance and by following a few basic steps. Here are a few tips to share that  may help you extend your own gardening season through overwintering tender plants.

Initial Considerations

  1. Select plants that are likely to grow well in pots and in the kind of environment that most of our houses have to offer.  Although a lucky few have greenhouses or greenhouse rooms, most of us have to be able to grow plants in spaces that get limited light and tend to be more uniform in temperature and lower in humidity than outdoor environments.  Because of this, before deciding which plants to bring in, a little research about growing habits and needs will enhance your chances of success.  You can also improve your odds by being ready to provide additional lighting (Amazon and others offer a wide array of options.
  2. Although indoor plants are safe from many of the pests that can attack them outside, they aren’t immune from insects.  In fact, it seems to me that the more closed indoor environment can make insect infestations that do occur more harmful because of how rapidly they can spread.  In addition, many indoor pests (notably spider mites and scale) don’t become apparent until they’ve already done significant damage.  So, vigilance is essential, along with being prepared to combat any pests that invade your indoor garden.
  3. Overwintering Citrus Plants (Stainbrook)
    Overwintering Citrus Plants (Stainbrook)

    Be prepared to provide plants with the water they need to grow and thrive. I find watering to be the biggest adjustment when I bring in plants for two reasons. One is that my houseplants that never go outside only need to be watered once per week, while the outside-to-inside plants need more frequent watering.  The second is that I just don’t notice my inside plants as much because they are scattered among several rooms while outdoors most of them “live” on the porch.  Since watering is obviously essential, I have to work at establishing a routine for this task.

  4. Plants need more humidity than most of our houses can offer once windows are closed and the heat is on. What works well for me is a plant water and humidity tray like the one made by Carter and Holmes,  Plant Watering Humidity Tray 105 (26¼” x 6½”), which has a two-part removable grid suspended over a large base tray.  Plants sit on the grid and water is added to the base tray to create humidity as the water evaporates.  It’s easy to devise something similar by putting stones or marbles in saucers, shallow bowls, or the bottoms of cache pots (with the plants themselves in a second, smaller pot with a drainage hole) and then either watering plants until water drains out the holes or occasionally pouring water into the base. Just make sure plants never sit in water.

 Making the Move:

Begonia getting washed for indoor overwintering (by Cyndy Crist)
Begonia getting washed for indoor overwintering (by Cyndy Crist)

Once you’ve decided which plants to bring in for the winter, there are several steps for preparing them for their new home.  The plants that I keep have all lived outside in pots, so I bring them in one at a time, put them in the kitchen sink, and use the spray to wash off the leaves (top and bottom) and the pot.  I wash plant trays and cache pots thoroughly and give the plants a good, drenching watering.  Finally, I remove any yellowed leaves from the plants along with any debris from the surface of the soil and settle them into their new homes once they’re thoroughly drained and dried.  Since I bring in a couple dozen plants, this process takes a bit of time to complete but it’s easily done over the course of several days (as long as I haven’t waited too long) and worth the effort.

Prepping blueberries, lemon verbena and chili peppers for overwintering (Stainbrook)
Prepping blueberries, lemon verbena and chili peppers for overwintering (Stainbrook)

If the plants to be overwintered have been living in the ground, getting them ready to bring in takes just a little more work.  First, dig them up with enough roots to take in sufficient water and nutrients from the soil.  Second, select a pot that’s large enough to accommodate the roots and the size and heft of the plant itself without being too much larger. Cautious gardeners advocate removing as much of the garden soil as possible and repotting with sterile soil, an approach I’m certain is wise but which involves more work than I would be inclined to tackle, not to mention a deft hand with the roots. Hosing off the plant is important to remove pests, as is being sure that the pots used are clean.

Some gardeners “split the difference” by keeping plants in unglazed clay pots which are sunk into the garden during the summer and then lifted out in the fall.  This approach offers the advantage of keeping roots intact and requires the same steps that I take for the pots I move inside.  Yet another option is to plant cuttings in the late summer and early fall.  With this approach, the plants brought inside are much smaller so they have less “work” to do to keep growing and the small pots make placement in good light on narrow windowsills possible.  Some plants can also be allowed to go dormant in the winter in a heated garage or basement, but that’s a story for another day.

However you decide to transition plants inside, it’s always a good idea to start the process when nighttime temperatures fall into the 50s and before the heat is turned on inside. A gradual transition is ideal, moving plants in and out for a few days (kind of the reverse of the “hardening off” routine in the spring). Since this isn’t practical with the number of plants I bring in, I try to ease the transition by opening windows near plants for a few hours each day. Starting to bring them inside earlier than may be necessary makes this approach workable most years.

What to Grow Indoors:

Herbs brought inside for overwintering (by Cyndy Crist)
Herbs brought inside for overwintering (by Cyndy Crist)

I’ve had the best success overwintering scented geraniums, begonias, and rosemary.  They all get a bit leggy by the end of winter (although I cut enough rosemary for cooking that it stays somewhat compact), but that’s easily fixed once they’re ready to move outside.  I’ve tried other herbs, including basil, thyme, lavender, and oregano, but I’ve never managed to keep any of them alive, probably because I have underestimated their watering needs. Whatever the cause of their demise, I’ve given up on them with one exception:  I’m trying a bay tree again this year. My last three have succumbed to scale, but a favorite grower at our local market gave me his formula for treating scale (*formula included at end of post) and I’m prepared to use it this winter as needed.

Prepping Rosemary and Strawberries for Overwintering (Stainbrook)
Prepping Rosemary and Strawberries for Overwintering (Stainbrook)

I know quite a few people who have not had the success with rosemary plants that I have.  I have surmised that my luck is partly a result of the large size of my rosemary plants, which I think helps them survive the early days of my adjustment to new watering regimens in a way that smaller plants might not.  It often has some powdery mildew near the end of winter, another common problem with growing rosemary indoors, but it’s never seemed to be a real problem for my plants.  I recently read that running a small fan for an hour or so on a regular basis can combat powdery mildew by improving air circulation.  I’ll give this strategy a try this year if the needles begin to be brushed with white.

In general, I think it’s worth the effort to bring in some outside plants for the winter.  If they survive, I have the pleasure of smelling wet earth when I water them, enjoying the freshness and bit of humidity that they add to indoor air, and seeing the flowers that begin appearing in late winter as the hours of daylight lengthen and the plants begin to move into active growth.  And if they don’t make it, all I’ve lost is the little bit of time and effort it took to prepare them for an indoor home.  Why not give it a try yourself?  I’ll bet you’ll be glad you did.

** Formula for treating Scale on Bay Plants:

 1/2 tsp insecticidal soap
1/4 tsp horticultural oil
1 quart warm water
The solution can be sprayed on the plant or applied with cotton swabs or balls, depending on the size of the plant and/or the extent of infestation.

Addendum on Overwintering by Dorothy:

Overwintering Lavender (Stainbrook)
Overwintering Lavender (Stainbrook)

Here is a list of edible tender perennials that I have successfully overwintered in Minnesota.  All were placed in an unheated shop attached to our house, given minimal water, and received quite a bit of East sun through many large windows.

  • Blueberry Plants
  • Rosemary
  • Lemon Verbena
  • Strawberries
  • Bay (watch for scale)
  • Lavender
  • Citrus trees
  • Aji chile peppers
  • Scented geraniums

Humidity trays:  While I usually make my own, in the way Cyndy suggested, Amazon does have a range of trays available for purchase.  My eye was drawn to the sturdiest ones, as the pots I bring in are fairly large and heavy.   One that looked promising  to me was this Humidity/Drip Bonsai Tray – Heavy Duty Black Plastic 16.5″ x 11.0″ x 1.5″.


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 Amazon.com 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!



How to Reduce Cracking Problems in Heirloom Tomatoes

HeathGlen's Heirloom Tomatoes in September
HeathGlen’s Heirloom Tomatoes in September













The time for baskets of beautiful, flavorful heirloom tomatoes is drawing near.   If you’re anything like me, you’ve been watching and waiting impatiently for that first flush of vine-ripened heirlooms, anticipating the taste of that sun-warmed globe of fresh goodness.  I picked our first few tomatoes yesterday, the Raspberry Lyanna and the Bloody Butcher, and they were everything that was promised and more.

But what a disappointment when you anticipate the bountiful harvest, only to see heavy amounts of cracking in the skin!  Sometimes the cracking will just mean a shorter time on the counter before you eat it, but deeper cracking can also allow disease to enter the tomatoes and result in total loss.

Cracking can occur at all stages of fruit growth, but as fruit mature they become more susceptible, especially as color develops.  Some varieties of tomatoes are more susceptible to cracking than others, regardless of whether it is an heirloom variety or a hybrid variety.  For information on heirloom varieties that are more or less prone to cracking, see the heirloom variety chart.

Concentric cracking on specific tomato varieties
Concentric cracking on specific tomato varieties

There are two different forms of cracking in tomatoes, one of which is primarily cosmetic and one which is a result of weather and growing conditions.

Concentric Cracking:

Concentric cracking occurs in a ring or rings around the stem end.  This is a genetic characteristic and can’t really be prevented.  The good news is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the fruit, and the taste is fine.  Scar tissue forms over the cracks, preventing access to bacteria and fungi, which would result in rotting.  Occasionally, with heavy rains the scar tissue may open up and allow access to disease.  If the cosmetic look of concentric cracking bothers you, and you grow your own tomatoes, select varieties that the seed catalogs refer to as “smooth” or “perfect”.  Sometimes they will note whether the variety is “resistant to cracking” also.

Tomato with Radial Cracking
Tomato with Radial Cracking

Longitudinal Cracking:

Any tomato variety can develop longitudinal cracking, where the tomato splits from top to bottom.  Longitudinal cracking (also referred to as radial cracking) starts at the stem end and progresses toward the blossom end.  This type of cracking happens when the internal expansion in the tomato is faster than the expansion of the “epidermis” , forcing the skin to crack to accomodate the expansion.  Essentially the skin on a more mature tomato can’t expand anymore in response to the absorption of water, so the skin splits open.  Don’t be afraid to eat these split tomatoes, or use in cooking, as long as you harvest them before bacteria and fungi contaminate the split.

Cracking can occur at all stages of fruit growth, but as fruit mature they become more susceptible, especially as color develops.

Control of Cracking:

With respect to concentric cracking, the only thing you can do is select varieties that do not exhibit this genetic characteristic.  For radial cracking, control is achieved by:

  1. reducing fluctuations in soil moisture, especially during later stages of development;
  2. selecting crack-resistant varieties;
  3. maintaining a good foliage cover, since exposed fruit are more susceptible;
  4. harvesting your tomatoes at an earlier stage of development (of course, this results in less of the sugars and complexity of flavors developing).

As the season progresses this year, I will take pictures of developing stages of the heirloom tomatoes.  While I am not going to encourage any cracking or disease, if it does occur, I will be sure and come back to this post to update and document.  Do you have any photos of cracked tomatoes that you would care to share to illustrate the point?  I’d love to share them if you do!

Happy Trails….and may your harvest be crack-free!