How I became a gardener. By Ellen Di Nardo

Getting ready for the growing season.

Right after the beginning of the year I go through my seed collection and make notes on a document on the computer as to what I need to order for the year, both seeds and supplies like germinating or transplanting mix, fertilizers and supplements (kelp, liquid seaweed, fishmeal, and green sand to build up the soil), soaker hoses, insecticidal soap, animal repellents, tomato ladders and tepees (also called Wall O Waters). These are 18­ inch high teepees with 18 tubes filled with water. When these are placed to encircle the plant, it is protected down to 16 degrees Fahrenheit. I also like to have garden quilts and earth staples on hand for covering the garden in the fall during nights when a frost is threatened. I order most of these supplies from Gardeners Supply whose staff has been very helpful. Once everything is ordered I don’t do anything until things arrive. Because I’ve ordered the same materials for almost 10 years I don’t need to label them. I recognize which is germinating mix as opposed to transplanting mix by the size and feel of the bag.

Starting heirloom tomatoes from seed.

A little over ten years ago I started raising tomato plants from seed because I had become interested in the wide variety of heirlooms that are no€™t readily available. Early in March a friend brings my two lights down from the attic. Both are 4 ­foot fluorescent lights. One holds 4 bulbs, the other holds 2, and they both fit on the dining room table, which I cover with newspaper. Tomatoes like Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Pineapple and Tangerine, which need a long season to ripen, are started in early March, then planted out in early May and protected by teepees. I start main crop tomatoes by late March.

I get most of my seeds from Tomato Growers Supply in Florida. For seed starting I use Gardener’s Supply accelerated propagation systems. The APS are self-­watering mini- greenhouses divided 12, 24, 30, or 40 cells. Once the cells are filled with soil and the seeds are planted, matting under the cells maintains constant moisture by wicking up water from the reservoir below, then delivering it to every cell. A dome ­like cover placed over the cells keep moisture inside. Once the seedlings are up, I remove the cover and grow the seedlings under lights until it’s time to transplant them into 3­ inch pots by pushing each well ­rooted plug out of its cell. When I started out, I used little plastic 6 pack trays, but as I’ve learned more about the needs of roots I have moved on to deeper containers. When well-­rooted tomatoes and peppers are planted outside they are better able to survive chilly spring days and nights than smaller plants with less developed root systems.

The tricky thing is keeping track of what plant is where, so before I transplant anything I create a document on the computer and write down what type of seeds or plants are in what pots. I make labels in braille that I can paste along the sides of the APS units. I put a piece of tape at one end of each transplant tray and use that as a starting point when listing what varieties are in it. For example, large trays hold 18 3 inch pots in rows of 6 and 3 across, so my list might say: “At end with tape on corner of tray are 3 Brandywine, followed by 3 Cherokee Purple, followed by Tangerine.” I continue like that until all 6 rows of 3 are listed.

Keeping track of everything can sometimes take more time than planting the seeds or transplanting the seedlings to larger containers. Hardening transplants & getting the garden ready. I move my 2 ft. by 4 ft. cedar cold frame from the garage to our back deck by April 1 and start moving things like lettuce and broccoli to it as early as possible. Once May arrives it’s time to shuffle things out to the cold frame for brief spells, then for longer times as they harden. I figure this takes 2 weeks for tomatoes. While things are getting used to the outside, I have the garden tilled, plant my lettuce and broccoli seedlings and lay my soaker hoses or drip irrigation. By late May, depending on the weather I start planting, using my 12 inch trowel to space plants.

Most of my garden is designed using the square foot method. I use 4 ­foot tomato stakes to measure and draw up squares and then mark their corners with short metal stakes. Then I lift the wooden stakes, rinse them off and put them away until it’s time to stake the tomatoes. I make paths around the squares which are about a foot and a half wide. With this method I can reach in from any side of the 4­ foot square. So I can identify the garden, I hoe a narrow trench around it. I know when I’ve reached the garden since it feels different underfoot from the grass and the trench around it.

For indeterminate (vining) tomatoes which need more space, I plant 2 rows which border my patio. Plants are 18 inches apart and the 2 rows are also 18 inches apart. Then I give myself 2 feet to walk, then put in 2 mores rows 18 inches apart from each other with plants 18 inches apart. So I have 4 rows. I can usually get about 12 or 13 plants in each row. Then I create paths on each side. I document the entire garden on the computer so I know where every plant is located. I use the patio, driveway, and lawn as landmarks in my journal.

Maintaining and harvesting the garden.

June and early July are months to just let things grow. For weeding, I crawl between the squares. Then I walk around each square and pull up whatever isn’t a true plant. I’ve been doing it so long, I’ve never mistaken a weed for a plant. July and August include feeding plants, too. In August I like to cut back new flowering shoots on cherry tomato plants. I feel for the shoot starting and before all the flowers are formed if I find a tiny leaf at the outside of the shoot, I pinch it off. As far as I can tell, this lets the shoot expand into two tiny bunches of flowers instead of one, so I get two bunches of tomatoes instead of one, from the same spot. I harvest tomatoes by the third week of July so the morning includes making rounds to see what is ready. I can tell a ripe tomato when it becomes soft. I generally just let my touch replace sight. Since I’m 55 and have been gardening since I was a kid, most things I grow are very familiar.

Cooking up the garden.

Starter Mix. Once I start harvesting tomatoes, my husband Frank (who is legally blind) and I start making plans to make sauce. My basil matures quickly so I cook up mixtures of basil, garlic and onions from the garden in June and early July. I chop the onion and peeled garlic and mix with the basil leaves. The mixture has 3 cups basil to 1 medium onion to 1 medium ­sized bulb of garlic. I saute the mixture in olive oil for 15-­20 minutes, then spoon it into 1 cup containers which are frozen until we make sauce.

We usually make a 6 ­quart and an 8 ­quart pot of sauce on the same day. Our favorite is a thick Marinara sauce, but we also like making pork, beef and chicken based sauces. The dominant herb in these sauces is basil (from the Starter Mix) but I may add oregano, thyme, a bay leaf, and either a few mint leaves or a fingerful of fennel seeds, depending on what type of sauce we’re making and which flavors appeal to us that day. We add salt and pepper to taste. Our sauces usually include every size of tomato I grow (see selection below): the hybrid cherries as well as large, medium fruited and plum type heirlooms. Or I might gather enough large heirlooms and just use them, or we may make a sauce with all yellow tomatoes of different sizes. Each type of tomato gives a different flavor and texture to our sauces. The only canned product we use is a small can of tomato paste in each pot for thickening.

Ellen & Frank’s Marinara Sauce.

I pour in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of each pot. Next, I put a cup of the frozen starter mix in each one. Then I stand at the sink cleaning and coring the tomatoes (no skinning) and Frank blends them up in a 40 oz. blender. He fills each pot to within 1 inch of the top with this juice. We cook the sauce, uncovered, for 2 1/2 to ­3 hours, on medium heat, stirring as needed. Once it is reduced, we add 1 ­6 oz. can of tomato paste for thickening. Since it can be bitter, 30-­45 minutes later we each taste the sauces and decide how much baking soda (from 1/2 to 1 teaspoon) to add to neutralize the acidic flavor. Plum tomatoes, for instance, often need more baking soda, while cherries are sweeter. After about another half hour we taste the sauces again to see if they need any more herbs or salt. Once the sauce thickens we add 2 tablespoons of sherry to each pot. We then get out a splatter screen for each pot and turn the heat on high for 10 minutes or until the sauces thicken. Then we turn the heat down and let the sauces simmer gently for another 10 minutes. The whole process takes 4-­5 hours. Before serving, I add 6-8 frozen meatballs and cook the sauce on low until the meat is thawed and heated through.

Leftover sauce, without meatballs, is frozen in containers. Once it is solidly frozen, I remove it from its containers and vacuum seal the frozen chunks in heavy plastic bags that come with the sealer. I braille the name of the sauce on the flap of the bag only if it is a meat­ based sauce. If the bag has no label, I know it is Marinara Sauce.

Meat ­based Sauces.

We prepare them the same way as the Marinara Sauce, but add meat. If it is a pork ­based sauce, the meat has to be on the bone as the marrow gives the sauce a richer flavor. One raw country pork rib is added to the bottom of the pot with the Starter Mix. Once the sauce has reached the point when it needs tomato paste, we remove the rib to a small bowl, pull the meat off the bone and add the cooked meat and juices back to the pot. For chicken and beef ­based sauces, we use pieces of boneless chicken breast (1 whole breast cut in pieces) or 1/2 pound hamburger meat, added to the pot when we add the juice. For chicken ­based sauce, we reduce the oregano and add a dash of dry Ellen’s favorite tomatoes to grow and make into sauce:

Large and medium sized heirlooms:
Cherokee Purple
Lilian’s Yellow
Pruden’s Purple
Paste heirlooms
Amish Paste
Plum Lemon
San Marzano
Super Italian
New Zealand Paste
Italian Gold (hybrid)
Cherry’­all hybrids
Fourth of July
Super Tasty
Isis Candy
Snow White
Sweet Gold
Golden Nugget
Gardener’s Delight (also known as Sugar Lump)


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