Imagine Thanksgiving day: you are up early in the morning to prepare the 20 lb. turkey that you brined the day before. You stuff the bird with homemade dressing; you cover the breast with cheesecloth dipped in melted butter so it doesn’t get too dark too soon. In the meantime you will baste that bird regularly to make sure the meat is moist and doesn’t dry out. By late afternoon the turkey will be roasted and tender. Slow food is so worth the time and patience to do it right!
Slow food in the garden is similar. After the last frost date when the soil has warmed and the nighttime temperatures hopefully do not dip below 50 degrees is the time to plant slow vegetables: sun-loving tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, especially. We plant in May in order to enjoy the harvest in August, all the while nurturing them throughout the summer in anticipation of the harvest to come. A wide variety of seedlings of these nightshade family members as well as cabbages, cucumbers, squash, and melons are abundant at local nurseries and the Winona Farmers Market right now, and it is time to plant!
Tomatoes are the most popular to plant—who doesn’t love to bite into a ripe tomato fresh off the vine? Plant these favorites deeply in soil that has been amended with some well-rotted compost or manure. They will need some support, so place cages around them or tie and stake them while they are small so that they grow upright and contained. You’ll need to pay attention to their growth so that the branches grow through the cage—not on the outside. Some gardeners allow their tomatoes to sprawl along the ground, but I think this promotes disease. I like to plant tomatoes at least 2 ½ to 3 feet apart. Those seedlings look so small, but they will take off in a hurry, and you will want to make sure there is ample space between the plants for sufficient air flow, again, to avoid disease. Peppers and eggplants can be spaced closer together—about 2 feet apart. These vegetables require at least 6-8 hours of sunshine daily.
If you have amended the soil with compost before you planted, additional fertilizer isn’t really necessary, but some people like to apply a dressing of 2 tablespoons Epsom salts to one gallon of water to these plants when they begin to bloom to encourage fruiting. I am an organic gardener, so I don’t apply artificial fertilizers, but the Epsom salts safely provides magnesium and sulfur which are essential to good production. Always water at the plant’s base rather than overhead in order to avoid black spot and other fungal disease problems.
These plants also take very well to containers. I have planted tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets from Ray Kiihne that had the bottoms removed and replaced with screen. Tomatoes need lots of room for their roots, and we want to promote lots of healthy tomato roots! Peppers and eggplants also do very well in containers. Remember to water regularly since container plants will dry out faster than those planted in the ground.
Mulch all plants with straw or leaves as soon as they are planted. It’s a good idea to wet this mulch down as you apply it so it doesn’t blow away. The mulch will allow the soil to retain moisture and will act as a barrier, if applied thick enough, to weeds. Kay Peterson recently told me that she applies newspaper and then covers that with compost in order to cut down on weeding. The newsprint and compost will decompose and amend the soil throughout the season. Kay says it is labor intensive, but she also saves time by not having to weed as frequently.
Regular attention to these plants will reap huge rewards in August and September when it is time to harvest. Good practices will promote your plants’ health as well as promote high yields. This is indeed slow food that we tend to as we watch those small yellow flowers form into tiny green balls and then swell into their rosy ripeness. Imagine that warm, juicy tomato on a hot August afternoon… and enjoy the process!