Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
March, 2010
Regional Report

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Have the best tomatoes, garlic, and basil ever this year.

Looking Ahead to Summer's Pleasures

Quick! What's your favorite vegetable? I bet most of you said tomatoes. Now, what's your favorite herb? Did many of you say basil? As we plan and get ready for planting, tomatoes and basil will find their way into most of our gardens, as we dream of plates overflowing with luscious sliced tomatoes accented with fresh basil. Now what other vegetable is so commonplace that we almost forget it? Does garlic come to mind? Many of us seldom sit down to a meal that doesn't contain garlic. And, it's easy to grow!

Tomatoes Garlic Basil
To have these three favorite foods at our fingertips later this year, now is the time to plan for them. So the timing is perfect for a new book, Tomatoes Garlic Basil: The Simple Pleasures of Growing and Cooking Your Garden's Most Versatile Veggies (St Lynn's Press, 2010, $18.95) by Doug Oster (no relation). Oster is a writer and television and radio garden expert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who also happens to have a wife of Italian descent. He lives by the ethos of traditional Italian cuisine: simple food, fresh from the garden.

With more and more people discovering (or re-discovering) the benefits of home vegetable gardening and home-grown foods, Oster takes us step-by-step from the basics of soil preparation and plant selection to the payoff in the kitchen. For beginners and old-timers alike, Oster's book delivers savvy organic gardening tips, a little horticultural history, serious and funny cautionary gardening tales, and thirty-one savory, family-tested recipes, many contributed by award winning chefs. No matter if your garden is a loft balcony or a suburban backyard, a pot or a plot, Tomatoes Garlic Basil addresses the main challenge of modern, busy gardeners and family cooks: how to grow their own veggies as simply and easily as possible, and turn them into simple, easy dishes for the table.

Oster says, " I wrote this book to share the adventure of growing fresh food and filling your kitchen with irresistible aromas - not to mention, fond memories."

Tips and Tricks for Getting the First Early Tomato
Of course, one of the ways to get that first early tomato is to buy a large plant, already blooming, in a pot. But that's cheating! To do it for real, I would allow purchased transplants, or you can start your own from seed. Whichever way you choose, Oster did a trial several years ago comparing early tomato varieties. And wouldn't you know it, the old reliable 'Early Girl' remained the standard. Some of his runners up included 'Cosmonaut Volkov', 'Whippersnapper', 'Sungold', 'Fourth of July', and 'Juliet'.

Oster believes another important key to early tomatoes is to have warm soil. Besides waiting for Mother Nature, he relies on porous black landscape fabric, which lets water and air through, and Wall O' Water plant protectors. Basically, these are small, plant-sized, open-air greenhouses with their walls filled with water. During the day, the water absorbs heat, then releases it at night. Oster installs his a week or two before planting to heat the soil. This gives him tomatoes three or four weeks earlier. A homemade version Oster suggests is to surround a plant with 2-liter clear plastic soda bottles filled with water. Another trick he offers to get early tomatoes is to tickle them with an electric toothbrush. Tomatoes are self-pollinating, and need a bee, another insect, or a tickle to pollinate the flower.

Garlic Greens and Scapes
Garlic is best planted in the fall, but you can enjoy the flavor in spring if you have a good farmer's market. Usually there's at least one vendor selling garlic greens and flower stems, or scapes. These have the flavor of garlic without the bite.

One of the recipes in Tomatoes Basil Garlic is for Hazelnut Pesto with Garlic Scapes. To make it, combine 20 fresh garlic scapes, 2 cups grated Manchego cheese, and one-half cup hazelnuts in a food processor. With the processor running, slowly add 2 cups safflower or olive oil and one-half cup dry white wine. Use less oil and wine if you want a thicker consistency. Blend until smooth and paste-like, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Add pesto to enough cooked and drained pasta to serve four people.

And Then There's Basil
Oster is hard-pressed to choose a favorite basil, but he does lean toward 'Lettuce Leaf', also sometimes offered as 'Green Ruffles', with 'Genovese' coming in a close second, while 'Nufar' is recommended as a disease-resistant strain of 'Genovese'. For growing in window boxes and indoors, try 'Spicy Globe', 'Dwarf', 'Green Bouquet', and 'Bush' basils. When planting basil in the garden, remember to wait until absolutely all danger of frost is past. Basil definitely is a warm-weather plant. But until those hot days come, we can dream of tomatoes, garlic, and basil.

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