Surprisingly Potatoes, Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant are all related in the Solanums family. We talked earlier about potatoes because they fit better in the “Roots” category. This also includes Tomatillos and Ground Cherries. (Okra grow and produces fruit in the same manner as tomatoes but are not related. They are in the hollyhock family)
You are probably familiar with the purple eggplant pictured here but if you look into eggplants you will find there are almost as many varieties as tomatoes. A wide assortment of sizes, shapes and colors. All need warm weather. Start your seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost. The need to be hardened off before planting in the garden and this should take about 10 days. If the plants get too cold it can permanently stunt them (the same goes for peppers and tomatoes). When they do finally make it to the garden put them in a well tilled, sandy spot. As long as they are warm they will fair pretty well.
Eggplants are ready for picking when their skin is shiny and they are about the size of an egg. If you let them grow longer they will continue to grow into their mature size which will depend on the variety you choose.
To harvest them simple cut them from the plant. If you wish to save seeds, cut the fruit in half, scoop out the seeds and place in water. Squish them around until they are free of pulp. drain the water and the pulp. Spread the seeds out to dry.
To store the fruit they can be dried or frozen. I prefer fresh only. Dried takes too much time in my dehydrator that I would rather use for something else and freezing really brings out the moisture.
When you say “heirloom” to most people they think tomatoes. I think this is for a few reasons. It is very easy to save tomato seeds, there are a million different varieties and they are some of the only heirloom seeds offered in conventional seed catalogs anymore. Native to tropical locations, there is a variety for every growing season now. Living in the north, I start my tomatoes (and peppers) indoors in late March to early April. I harden them off towards the end of May and have them in the garden by early June. When planting to tomatoes in the garden, dig a trench rather than a hole. Lay the tomato plant at an angle and burry up to the bottom set of leaves. This keeps the roots towards the top of the soil where it is warmer. As the days get warmer and the soil warms the roots will work their way down too. To space my plants I put my cages in the ground and leave enough room to walk between rows. To give your plants a boost add some crushed egg shells or oyster shells to the soil. The extra calcium is great for the plant.
As the plants get larger you will need to place a cage around them or stake them up. I read somewhere caged tomatoes will produce twice as much as staked ones. Two years ago my tomatoes grew to be six feet tall and produced more tomatoes than I ever thought possible. When the threat of the first hard frost came I picked every tomato left out there. Just when I thought I was about done canning every tomato product under the sun I had 15 more gallons of tomatoes to tend to! After that I have learned when the plants grow a foot above the cages to start trimming the tops off. Let the plant put more effort into making tomatoes rather then stalks and leaves.
To harvest tomatoes gently pluck the fruit from the plant. In the case of a hard frost the non-green varieties can be picked green. Spread them out on some news paper, in a warm spot in the house. Check them every few days. They will turn red (or whatever color they should) in about a week or so. Most tomatoes are pretty obvious when they are ripe; they turn a beautiful shade of red. My tomato patch usually consists of five different varieties; 12 Amish Paste (red), 12 Gypsy (red), 2 Black (black in color of course), 2 Green (yep, green), 2 Fire (red, orange, yellow striped). Boy do I have tomatoes! Which brings me to preserving.
Tomatoes are like shrimp if you’ve ever seen Forest Gump. They can be canned, dried or froze. If your canning you can make tomato sauce, Italian tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, tomato juice, ketchup, enchilada sauce, chili, tomato paste, salsa, hot sauce, and well, you get the picture. That is what I made a few years ago. I expect this year to be no different. It can be a lot of work but I love never having to purchase tomato products at the market.
*Just a quick note on unripe tomatoes. I had a lot of green tomatoes and was just ready to be done with tomatoes for the year. I pickled them! They were great! The recipe can be found below. I have also sliced them thick (1/2 inch give or take) let them rest in a strainer with a little salt. Then breaded them with our walleye breading and fried them when we were frying fish one night. Great too!
Saving tomato seeds is quite easy. Take a beautiful tomato that has fully ripened from the best looking plant and scoop out the seeds and pulp. Place this in a jar and add an equal amount of water. Shake the jar and let it ferment for a few days. When a white film forms on top rinse with water until the pulp is gone. Spread the seeds out to dry.
I handle tomatillos the same as tomatoes. They too are of tropical origin but do well up north, they can handle cooler weather. I do start them about a week after the tomatoes. I don’t know that it makes that much of a difference though.
Tomatillos grow in a papery husk and are ready to pick when the bottom of the husk splits open. At this point they will be green. You can leave them and they will continue to grow and turn a variety of colors. I like the purple ones. They’re just pretty. As they turn color they will get a more mild flavor.
Storing the tomatillos can be done a few ways too. The purple store best. You can pull the husk back and string them up like garlic. They can also be laid out someplace cool and dark. Don’t cover, crowd or seal them off from air and they will last for a few months! They can also be turned to salsa, sauce, diced, etc..
Peppers might be my absolute favorite vegetable to grow. I could grown them like crazy in North Dakota. They were 3 foot high bushes and produced like there was no tomorrow! I’m praying I will have the same luck in Minnesota this year.
There are so many different types of peppers to choose from and I have the hardest time doing so. Last year I had 96 pepper plants, about 7 different varieties. This year I have seed for 12 different varieties.
Like tomatoes I start my peppers indoors in late March. I know they could get started a little later but by that time I can’t stand waiting any longer for spring.
I harden them off with the tomatoes and they go in the ground at the same time too. I plant my peppers relatively close together (about 12 inches apart). Peppers and everything else I’ve talked about here love the sun and heat. I have found my hot peppers get much hotter on the Scoville scale when we had a hotter then usual summer.
Sweet peppers and Bell pepper (yes bell peppers are considered sweet) start out green as everything else, as they grow and change color they grow in sweetness and the flavor of the bell pepper gets milder.
Sweet peppers are ready to pick when have reached their mature color and size pick them right away. More you pick the more they plant will try to produce.
Sweet peppers can be dried, canned, pickled or froze.
Hot peppers can be cared for in the same manner.
You have the same options when preserving the hot peppers as the sweet peppers with a few extra options. Hot sauce, chili oil and chili vinegar! Yum!
Saving pepper seeds is as easy as picking the best pepper from the best plant. Allowing it to grow to full maturity. Scooping out the seeds and allowing them to dry.
***Each of the vegetables mentioned above should not be planted where it or another of the category has grown in the past three years. This will reduce insect problems.
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