{how you do it} NOW is the Time to Plan Your Garden

Editor’s Note: Please enjoy Dianna’s third installment of her monthly {How You Do It} series. Don’t miss this extremely informative post on planning a ‘tomato sauce’ garden through the eyes of the “Community Share Cropping” system Dianna and her husband, Michael, created with their network of friends. Oh, and she shares a terrific tomato sauce recipe too! – Christina

Winter is long and hard and dark and cold in upstate New York but it brings the exquisite promise of the change of seasons.  In January the seed catalogs arrive in the mail and we plan the summer vegetable garden.  Our long-time favorite is the Fedco catalog out of Maine because it has a huge selection of cheap, high quality, untreated seeds, is run as a cooperative, and is pleasantly no-frills.  We generally grow a tomato sauce garden with garlic, onions, tomatoes of various types, basil and peppers, but we also grow leeks, carrots, broccoli, beets, green beans, egg plants, delicata squash, cilantro, tomatillos and potatoes to keep into the winter, as well as herbs and sometimes lettuce and spinach. Except for my favorite variety, I mostly buy lettuce and spinach at the farmers market because they do it well and I don’t want to plant every week just to keep our family supplied with a small quantity of greens.  We don’t need to do every thing; division of labor has good points.

Every cook in the northeast should try growing a vegetable garden if they have any sunny space at all.  It can give you food for the dark winter and, paradoxically, make you glad when the winter comes again so you can finally stop weeding.   We don’t have much sun in our urban back yard so we do some container gardening on our deck, which is about the only spot where we have the requisite six hours a day of direct sun.  The rest of our vegetables are grown in other people’s yards.  We grow a small home vegetable garden for each of the five households where we have garden space; tomatoes, basil, peppers, eggplants, green beans and whatever they want.  The rest of the garden is partly for the crops we want on a larger scale and partly for cover crops and soil improvement.  Each garden has all three things going at once; we make sure that any piece of ground doesn’t have the same crop growing on it two years in a row.  We add composted horse manure and our back yard compost but no other fertilizers, pesticides or soil amendments.  Every one whose land we use gets a share of the produce. We call this community share cropping. It allows us to feed our friends to a small extent, have storage crops without having to buy them, and provides mental and physical exercise plus an excuse to spend long days outside with the sun on our backs.

The seed orders are placed at the end of the month or in early February.  We start some seedlings in late February and March in our limited light at home, always feeling optimistic.  You really need a greenhouse to do seedlings right, so our poor little plants are often pale and leggy, never quite catching up to the plants we buy from local growers.  But some things you can’t buy and are worth coaxing through the late winter with grow lights and window sills.  Black Krim tomatoes, for example, and early Pirat lettuce.  In April we will plant our first cold-hardy crops outside, likes peas and onion sets.  This May we will wallow on our knees and elbows and bellies and faces in warm soil, grateful for the annual miracle of the new garden.  I recommend it highly.

Basic Garden Tomato Sauce
Feeds many.
Time to prepare, 9 months.

Grow a bunch of paste tomatoes (we like Opalka but you can buy Romas from most farmers markets or garden centers, they are the work horse of the paste tomato world), onions, garlic and basil. Set a pot of water to boil, have a bowl of ice water sitting near it and a third giant bowl or big pot to hold the skinned tomatoes.

Wash the tomatoes and cut off the stem end.  Pop 10 or so of them in boiling water, bring the water back to boil and let them simmer about 2 minutes until the skin slightly puckers.

Use a slotted spoon to remove tomatoes from the boiling water.  Place them in the cold water and wait until they are cool enough to handle while you plop another batch in hot water to scald.

Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch the meat out of the tomato skin into a big bowl.  Discard skins into your compost bucket to feed next year’s garden.

Repeat fifty times or so until you have a very big bowl full of tomatoes.

In a 3-gallon pot, heat 3-4 Tbsps of olive oil.  When it is warm, throw in three cut up onions and a head of chopped up garlic.  Simmer these for about five minutes, stirring frequently.

Dump skinned tomatoes on top of onions.  They will be quite wet.  Add a large handful or two of torn up washed basil leaves, about a tablespoon of oregano, a few dried red chile peppers and half a bottle of red wine. Mix together.  Simmer sauce over low heat for at least an hour and a half, until it isn’t too watery and the flavors marry.  Stir frequently to prevent burning, breaking up tomato chunks as you go.

Season to taste with salt and pepper, maybe a half teaspoon of sugar if the tomatoes aren’t too flavorful.  Then again, if the tomatoes aren’t flavorful, don’t bother making the sauce.  Eat some and can the rest. Add anything you want to it before serving: mushrooms, eggplants, meatballs, along with extra garlic and onions. Because the sauce is mostly tomatoes, you can hot pack it and process it for 45 minutes in a boiling water bath without needing to use a pressure canner.

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