Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Dealing with a surplus of tomatoes

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It's not surprising that tomato finishes at the top of the list in annual surveys of the most popular garden vegetable. I'm sure one reason is the culinary versatility of tomatoes. After a slow start, tomatoes are now ripening at a rapid pace, making frequent picking a necessity. Even if you have only one plant growing in a pot there are only so many fresh tomato sandwiches, BLTs or tomato-infused omelets one can eat. As such, there is sure to be a surplus of the "love apples."     

There are several options for those feeling overwhelmed by a surplus. You could give them away to friends, donate them to a local food pantry or play tomato baseball. Another option is to preserve the surplus. The most common methods of preserving tomatoes are canning or freezing. Freezing makes sense if there are only a few surplus tomatoes, and it is the easier of the two methods. The downside is that frozen tomatoes lose their texture and some flavor. Thawed tomatoes are typically mushy. The reduction in flavor is due to inactivation of certain flavor inducing enzymes; this occurs at temperatures below 50 F. That also explains why fresh tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator and why tomatoes should be harvested before air temperatures are consistently below 50 F.

Our preferred method of tomato preservation is canning. We (I use that pronoun loosely as it is my wife, Pat, who commands the canning center in our kitchen) can whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato sauce and salsa. Besides texture and flavor retention, with canning we don't have to worry about storage space, a problem with a well-stocked freezer. The downside is the cost of materials, i.e. canner and jars, and increased labor.

Another method is drying. We do this only with certain varieties of tomato, specifically small plum varieties. "Principe Borghese," an Italian heirloom, is our preferred variety, but in truth any tomato variety can be dried. When drying tomatoes, they must be cut in half. Drying can then be accomplished by placing the sliced tomatoes on a tray and covering with cheesecloth before setting out in the sun for about three days — assuming you can count on three days of sun. (Ideally, you should haul your tomatoes to Italy where sun drying is routine. Good luck with that!) Drying can also be done is a microwave, an oven or in a food dehydrator. We use the latter implement as it seems to be the easiest way to dry tomatoes. One of the ways by which we use dried tomatoes is to grind them into a powder using a spice or coffee bean grinder. The powder can be used to flavor salad dressings, soups and stews, and to thicken sauces.

For details on preserving tomatoes and any other fruits and vegetables, go to the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation (http://nchfp.uga.edu/).



PRE-LABOR DAY LABORS                                                        

Preserve this list of timely tips for garden labors before Labor Day:

- Bring vacationing houseplants back indoors. However, check pots carefully for pests hidden on and under the foliage and tucked away in the drainage holes at the bottom of the pots. A forceful spray of water will dislodge many pests but an application of insecticidal soap or other organic pesticide may be warranted.

- Apply fertilizer to lawns. A controlled-release fertilizer, a little higher in potassium than that used in spring, is preferred at this time of year.

- Fertilize strawberry beds by applying one-half pound of 10-10-10 (or equivalent) fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed.

- Divide and transplant oriental poppies. Conventional wisdom has it that they do not bloom until the second year after transplanting, but those I divided last year bloomed this June.

- Look for young seedlings appearing in gardens with annual flowers. Some may be weeds but some may be from seed shed by annual flowers such as marigold, begonias and torenia earlier this season. Once you've decided which are the good guys, transplant individual seedlings to 3- inch pots to grow on as houseplants.

- Plant newly purchased evergreen shrubs or dig and transplant existing ones in the landscape if necessary. This is a good time for planting evergreens as long as there is plenty of soil moisture. However, don't delay this task beyond late September.

- Don't worry about mowing the existing grass surrounding recently reseeded spots in your lawn. The amount of damage to newly germinated seed is small compared to the problems arising from letting established grass get too high.

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