Early tomatoes

We can all agree that home grown tomatoes are what make life worth living, right. (Oh be quiet- you like them in salsa and stuff, though, right? okay, then.) So, we can probably all agree that we want those tomatoes as early as possible, right?
Around here (zone 5, Northern front range of Colorado) the traditional date for safely planting out things that won’t survive frost is Mother’s day- mid May. There is no guarantee it won’t freeze after that date, but that is the average annual last frost date. This year we had a snowy April, and an actual cancel-school- snow day on May first.
That meant that the ground was cold- it was very wet, which is a good thing, but the soil was cold. I made the decision to delay tomato-planting until it warmed up a bit.
Tomatoes need warm air temperature as well as warm soil temperature- it isn’t just a matter of “not freezing” they actually need to be warm. (Interestingly, tomatoes are kind of the Goldilocks of plants, when it gets too hot, over 90, they stop blooming)
I checked the soil temp with my trusty meat thermometer, and it was 43 degrees. I had some walls of water in the garage. For those of you who don’t know, a Wall of Water is a plastic cylinder made of connected tubes which can be filled with water.  It creates a mini greenhouse, and the water absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. They are supposed to be self supporting. I set them up, (and then reset them up- they kept falling over- I don’t know if the cat kept messing with them or what the deal is, but that is why I don’t ordinarily use them- any one have any tips?)

Look how slouchy that one on the right is- if that falls over on the chocolate cherry plant I am going to be so ticked off.

Look how slouchy that one on the right is- if that falls over on the chocolate cherry plant I am going to be so ticked off.

Anyway, I set them up, then took the soil temperature again. It was 63 degrees after just a couple of days.
Now, variety choices. In the past I have gotten “Early Girl” because the fruits are, you know, early. 60 days to maturity, which means mid July, roughly. One year I was swayed by some garden porn, and bought Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, which has a great name, and an heirloom provenence, and is supposed to be heart-meltingly delicious, which didn’t ripen until late September, so I didn’t get to eat any. Mid- September is our average last frost date, so we have about 4 months to get as many tomatoes as we can.
This year I went to the garden center, and mixed in with all the Early Girls was a variety I hadn’t heard of before- 4th of July. I checked the label- 55 days. Which means first harvest on the…let me do the math..umm, 30 days hath September…carry the 1- the 4th of July.

The other variety I picked today was Chocolate Cherry. I have grown this before, and it is so delicious.  It ripens to a dark, deep red, very sweet. It is a bit slower to ripen, but very prolific.

So, I put them in the ground, carefully lifting the waterfilled tubes away from the planting spots, digging in some compost, plugging the tomato plants in deeply, then carefully replacing the waterfilled tubes back over the plants. I acknowledge that it might have been easier to dump out the water and refill, but I just couldn’t see doing it. It seems wasteful.

That was a couple of weeks ago, and the 4th of July has blossoms on it. I haven’t seen any pollinators go inside- which doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but I have been busy. Does anyone have tips about that? The walls of water seem to be kind of a pain in the neck, but I am hoping they are worth it.


Gingerbread House Madness

Every year, I think it would be fun to make gingerbread houses, and then we do, and I make it so it isn’t fun.

At all.

It takes a full 12 months for me to forget how terrible it is, and then I do it again.
This year we added the variable of a contest. http://www.friendsofthelovelandlibrary.org/index.php/events/gingerbread-challenge  So we have a brand new way to make it not fun- competition. yea…..

I had a great idea- mine would be a greenhouse, using glass candy for the windows, and candy plants inside that you would be able to see through the windows. The Boy had a cool idea too, a house under construction, using candy canes as the studs of a house. The Girl wanted to stick with tradition, no theme, just a house, but also with windows, and a tree inside.

Okay- the 6 day process begins.

Monday- make dough, last minute trip to grocery for Crisco, not a pantry staple at our house, to make the “construction grade” dough. Chill dough overnight.
Tuesday- roll half the dough, cut out windows and doors, bake and then use every inch of counter space to cool foil sheets of house pieces, for three separate houses. After oven is off- I count up and realize I am 1 piece short…Deadline for entering contest passes, and I feel a little relieved.

1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, 1/3 cup water. Boil for-freaking-ever, or until thermometer reads 260.

  • Photo credit- The Girl
  • How cool is that? Candy you can see through!

Wednesday- Good news- they are extending the deadline…We boil the sugar syrup to the hard crack stage, 260 degrees, and pour it into the windows I cut into the gingerbread. Both kids are watching closely- thankfully no one gets burned. Roll out other half of dough to make more panels and windows. Recount- still not enough panels- resolve to fill in with graham crackers. As the sugar cools, I repeatedly caution the kids not to touch, Not to Touch, Not To Touch!!

Put myself into time out after 2 walls break due to touching…NOT TO TOUCH!!!!

Technically, a box of candy canes was dropped on it. I really lost it- you know it's bad when your throat hurts from yelling.

Thursday- I attempt some repair with sugar syrup- it is partially effective, if by partially we mean wobbly and sticky. (Also, the fruit flies are having a field day). We did have some fun playing with the decorating kit, including making trees out of ice cream cones.

The Girl tinted the icing, and piped it herself- I love this tree.

Friday- Okay, with enough royal icing, the Girl’s graham crackers attach to the sides and form a cohesive house.  The Boy creates a toilet out of a marshmallow and a life saver. Classy.  My greenhouse roof slips twice, then cracks, then finally sticks.

Contest Saturday.

I have second thoughts.

Both kids have nightmares of dropping their houses.

Why are we doing this?


Edited to add- if you do glass candy windows, make sure you get the temperature up to 260, or hard crack stage- my windows were not, and they have slumped over the past weeks.  Not quite a solid, they are a supercooled liquid. The Girl’s windows cooked longer, and are slightly amber colored, but much harder. This is easiest if you have a candy thermometer. We used an instant -read thermometer.

I want to live in a conservatory

I ordinarily don't like red, but this warmed my soul.

We went to the Denver Botanic Gardens last week- the kids had the day off school, so I got a sub so we could have an adventure.
DH had a conference in Denver, so we loaded up the car and went down. We were prepared for the worst,  “bring coats, wear a fleece!” I said as we left the house, but we were graced with amazing weather.

I’ve been to the gardens a couple of times, and this time I bought a membership, so I can go again. I’ll drag other people, too, so beware! Or, wait patiently for an invitation…
You would think that February is an unlikely time to tour a Botanic Garden, but I planned it knowing that the conservatory has at least an hour’s worth of hanging-around time. Everytime I go there, I wish my house was a greenhouse. Not a sunroom, or a lean-to.   I want to live in a conservatory.

Marni's Pavilion has a rotating orchid display.

 Lots of things were in bloom, it was warm and humid. Perfect for a February day, with uncertain weather predictions.We saw banana trees, and pineapples and bamboo, and a waterfall. And orchids! Love orchids.

I’ll sort through the outdoor pictures and post about them another time- it turns out we couldn’t have picked a better day- sunny with no wind. Today I want to share the flowers in the conservatory. Aah. Orchids.

There were four or five of these sprays of dangling orchids, moving in the breeze from the fans. Amazing.

Mini Greenhouse Experiment

I bought Four-Season Harvest a few years ago hoping it would tell me how to have tomatoes in January. It doesn’t, but the author, Eliot Coleman, writes about growing greens in inexpensive hoop houses- basically PVC pipes covered in plastic sheets. So, I decided to plant a fall garden, with spinach, and mesclun greens, and kohlrabi, and they have looked lovely all fall. I didn’t put the plastic on, and few light snows didn’t faze them, when the snow melted, they bounced right back. We went away for Thanksgiving, and the weather prediction was for temps in the 20’s, and high winds. I put the plastic on, tucking it in, weighting it down with bricks and stones. Wasn’t enough, of course- I should have used duct tape… When we got back from Nebraska late last night, the plastic hadn’t blown all the way to Denver, but it had gotten loose, and the greens are fried. I’m sure the spinach, at least, will come back from the roots, but not until spring. The parsley looks undamaged, and the garlic will just hunker down and sprout again next spring. So, the lesson for me is to be more careful with attaching the plastic. I don’t think the problem was going out of town- I am pretty sure if I had seen and heard the plastic flapping around in 40 mile per hour winds, I would have just stayed inside and watched it.

Lows in the twenties make me feel like this, too.

I paid probably $10 for the PVC and a plastic dropcloth. Should have used staples and duct tape, too, though.