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Fall Tomatoes

Lawrence Davis-HollanderI ate the last of my garden tomatoes on the fifth of November. Now, that may not seem so extraordinary if you live in Alabama, and if you live in western MA that is very unusual.  We had our first frost at my house on November 2. We also had our second and third immediately following.

These last tomatoes were Lambert’s General Grant, a fairly rare heirloom variety, large and red, well formed, with very good taste, much like the old Jersey tomatoes. Now this wasn’t a tomato I picked fully green and left on the window sill or in a paper bag to ripen.  It was a tomato picked with a fair amount of ripeness, showing plenty of color, and it kept for several weeks.  Which means I picked it in early October, already an aberration for growing tomatoes in Zone 5. Normally we can expect a frost here around September 22. In recent years we’ve gotten as far as Oct 6 or 11. For the past thirty years I’ve been paying attention it is only recently that first frosts have occurred so late. Surely this November frost must be a record. I don’t know if this is another example of global warming, and many gardeners have observed and speculated upon this. It is the latest frost I’ve seen in forty gardening years.

We had several different frost warnings after the beginning of October, so I picked several batches of tomatoes that were close to ripening, only to have the frost pass us by. Along with General Grant I was still picking Trucker’s Favorite, Indian Moon, Eva Purple Ball, and a couple of Russian Blacks that were still hanging on plus lots of paste tomatoes. Indian Moon is my favorite orange tomato, eight ounce size,  fairly globular, supposedly of Navajo Indian origin, and very tasty for an orange tomato. Earl of Edgecomb is similar.  I’ve heard that Indian Moon is now available commercially. Look for it.

All through October I was eating more-or-less vine ripened tomatoes along with accumulating bowlfuls of paste tomatoes. I had to keep a close watch on all the varieties as soon some would begin to mold or collapse from the inside with rot. Generally however most of them kept well for weeks at room temperature, especially the paste tomatoes. I’m always amazed how long tomatoes can keep if unblemished.  This was simply a waiting game of percentages. I wanted to keep eating fresh tomatoes throughout October, and in doing so I lost some to rot and gained a long season of eating pleasures. My unproven theory here is that since we had a very dry year for our region of the Northeast, verging on drought for most of the summer, and the tomatoes had less moisture, they were able to be more rot resistant.

In any case, many of the paste types will keep fresh much longer due to their higher solids content and lower moisture content, which is why they are more efficient to use when making tomato sauce. As usual I was growing a few odd and rare varieties. One was Purple Pear, a medium size pink pear, Northampton Italian plum, a long tapering “carrot type” tomato – in this case from Northampton, MA. These are typically late ripening, very meaty with very few seeds and sometimes green unripe shoulders. The last paste variety  I grew was one which I suspect may have been selected from the carrot-type tomatoes but is much fatter and a little less elongated, called Berkshire Polish. These tomatoes literally came over “on the boat” in someone’s grandfather’s pockets from Poland early in the century. Of course it was at least the second transatlantic trip for that variety, having originated somewhere in the Americas. Imagine the value those seeds had  to be considered valuable enough to carry with you on the long journey in steerage. That’s why they call them heirlooms.

#1 Lazy preparation method

After six weeks or so of tomato harvesting, eating, and cooking I confess to getting a bit lazy in my tomato preparations.  I find it very humorous when interviewers ask me “what’s you favorite tomato recipe?  And I offer to give them one that’s not in my book.  “well honestly it’s a few slices of fresh tomato drizzled with a bit of olive oil or mayonnaise, maybe a sprinkle of salt.”

“That’s it?” 

So in October I just sliced tomatoes and sprinkled a few pieces of coarse salt on each tomato  slice and let it sit for a half hour or so until the salt dissolved. I like using Celtic salt or a new one I just discovered, a Northwest alder smoked salt, black in appearance. Frankly not much of the smokiness came through. We can get a bit obsessed with numerous salt variations and subtle tastes;  now we’ve got red and pink, black and grey and I’m sure some others I’ve missed. Well those dissolved chunks of salt gave great splashes of saltiness as you progressed through each tomato slice.

#2 Lazy preparation method

Every week or so I would go through my bowls of paste tomatoes and pick out those dead ripe tomatoes that were clearly going to turn into mush sooner than later. Not really having enough time for making something as elaborate as a fine tomato sauce I quickly cut them in half, or occasionally thirds if the tomatoes were fat enough and quickly packed them on to a cookie sheet, cut side up, poured a little olive oil on them, a little chopped garlic, sprinkled wild thyme, including a couple of stems, a scattering of coarse salt, and a  few twists of the pepper mill. Time permitting a couple of tablespoons of white wine. (no, no not that drab stuff they sell called cooking wine, just any ordinary non-bulk drinking wine. No no not the stuff in the box) You could also scatter some chopped onion or shallot. I never got that far. One time I sprinkled a small amount of organic brown sugar. Frankly not necessary as  the roasting already brings out a  nice sweet flavor.

I put the oven on 350. If not 350 maybe 425 for a while and 50 or 90 minutes later they were done.  Sometimes not having 90 minutes I cooked them for 30 minutes and left them until the next day and finished them off. They didn’t start fermenting and just patiently waitied  for me to attend to them.

Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook coverOnce done I’d throw the lot of them into the food  processor for  a half a minute or so, leaving a bit of coarseness-- and voila roasted tomato sauce. Oh and if you don’t  like this sacrilegious approach, you could put half or all of the sauce through a food mill . if the sauce is still a bit watery you can slow simmer it until you have driven off the excess moisture.

This makes a beautiful medium red colored sauce with wonderful taste and is a great base for a more seasoned Italian sauce, additions to stew or as is for pizza or pasta.

#3 Lazy preparation method

One day my over roasted tomatoes cooked a little longer and really started shriveling. I turned the heat down really low, to 150 and let them slow roast for another 12 hours or so until they were slightly moist around the edges and essentially dry. Be careful not burn them. Its easy to go too far  in an oven as they dry. If this sounds too hard  to judge their readiness then just roast them for a while as above, and then put them in a food dehydrator. Seasoned dried tomatoes are much better than plain dried ones.

Those got packed tightly into a jar, covered generously with olive oil and there they sit in the cupboard.

There’s still one more fat Berkshire Polish sitting in a wooden bowl along with a few Northampton plums in the bucket. Maybe I’ll cook it up with a bit of venison sausage.

LD-H is an ethnobotanist, life coach, and author of Tomato: A Fresh from the Vine Cookbook and president of, where he and his wife just published a luscious Heirloom Tomato Poster. 

Fresh Basil: Beyond Tomatoes!

Beginner's Guide to Edible HerbsBasil and tomato is probably the most well-known herb-vegetable combination, but don’t make short shrift of this herb. It works well with most any vegetable, and it even makes a nice tea.

USES. The entire plant is used, with the seeds, leaves, and flowers employed most often. The fresh or dried leaves are essential ingredients in tomato-based sauces and as a seasoning for vegetables, meats, and stuffings. A tea made from the leaves produces a warm, restorative feeling; itchy insect bites can be soothed by rubbing fresh leaves over the skin. Basil is said to aid digestion, relax cramps and muscle aches, and reduce fevers. In companion plantings, such as with tomatoes and peppers, it helps repel aphids.

Tomatoes and basil

Beginner's Guide to Edible Herbs coverPRESERVE FOR LATER. Fresh basil should not be placed in the refrigerator but rather in water on a windowsill. To dry basil, harvest clean, dry leaves (don’t wash the leaves); tie in small bunches and hang upside down in a warm, dark place for 2 to 4 weeks. Alternatively, you could spread the leaves in a single layer on a cookie sheet and dry them in the oven on the lowest possible temperature for a few days. You could also freeze basil, although the leaves will turn black.

PART OF PLANT USED: Entire plant

CULINARY COMPANIONS: Garlic, onion, peppers, tomatoes

USE TIP: Add fresh basil at the end of cooking for best flavor.

Excerpted from The Beginner's Guide to Edible Herbs with permission from Storey Publishing (c) 2010. Photography (c) by Saxon Holt. 

My Little Sheep: Miniature Cheviots

Sue WeaverMy little sheep are the reason I wrote Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock. Before we moved to the Ozarks, I helped a friend in Minnesota tend her sheep. Her first flock consisted of full-size Cheviots and the second, Jacobs. They were lovely sheep, but a handful to handle for doctoring, hoof trims and shearing.

So, in 2003 when I decided I’d like to raise sheep, I knew I wanted a fairly small breed. I admired my friend’s Cheviots, so when I heard of a woman disbanding her flock of Miniature Cheviots (in favor of alpacas) I thought, “That’s for me!”

Baasha was my first (and best) sheep, she is 13 years old here

I bought her best, middle-aged ewe, Brighton Ridge Farms #59 “Baasha,” and a weanling ram. It turned out to be the wisest purchase of my life. Now, though Baasha is gone, virtually all of my sheep are her descendants (visit my Dreamgoat Annie website and click on Sheep to see them). Baasha is honored as a foundation ewe by the newly formed American Classic Cheviot Sheep Association.

Wolf Moon Findabar a.k.a. Shebaa is grandaughter to Baasha and one of my best ewes.

Cheviots are an ancient British breed. In 1372, historical record refers to a “small, but very hardy” race of sheep grazing the bleak Cheviot Hills between Scotland and England.

The first Cheviots came to America in the 1840s when Thomas Laidler, a shepherd on the Cheviot Hills, sent each of his four children living in New Lisborn, New York, three Cheviot sheep.

Wolf Moon Fin Bheara a.k.a. Maxx (left) is now a Wolf Moon breeding ram.

Various breeds of Cheviots evolved during the nineteenth century including the North Country Cheviot of northern Scotland, the Brecknock Hill Cheviot of Wales, and Wicklow Cheviot of northern Scotland. The original Cheviot, however, was the intrepid Border Cheviot, the direct ancestor of Classic and Miniature Cheviot sheep.

Many sheep (including my own) are dual-registered. The Classic registry emphasizes historic Cheviot type and traits and the Miniature registry, petite size. Both are to Border Cheviots as Babydoll Southdown sheep are to old-fashioned British Southdowns – they are the original breed as it existed before it was selectively bred by modern meat producers for longer legs and larger cuts of meat.

Oran of Sheperds Croft belongs to Lori Olson of Boscobel, Wisconsin.

Miniature and Classic sheep are longer than they are tall; Classics are 18 to 24 inches tall at newly shorn withers. They are naturally polled and come in white, dilute black (resulting in silvers, grays, tans, and mottled patterns) and (occasionally) spotted; many blacks have flashy white facial markings. They are wide and sturdy with perky, upright ears; big, dark eyes; and handsomely convex facial profiles. Cheviot faces and legs are haired instead of wooled and their soft, spongy, low-grease, 28-32 micron fleeces don’t pick up a lot of debris. They are extremely easy keepers and browse as well as graze. Ewes are attentive, milky mothers that lamb with ease and usually produce twins. Best, like other breeds of miniature livestock, it’s easy to work with these little sheep.

Other miniature sheep breeds include Babydoll SouthdownsShetlandsSoay, and Ouessants, all of which I describe in Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock. But I’m sold on my little sheep. Breeders will have lambs available soon – maybe you need some too!

Miniature Livestock: Think Small

Sue WeaverLike many little girls, I loved horses. I galloped and whinnied, doodled ponies on my homework and scorned Barbie (give me Breyer horses instead!). At 12 I bought my first horse and financed his keep through babysitting and peddling wild blackberries door to door. As life progressed I bred horses, trained them, gave lessons, wrote about them as a freelance writer and studied them in depth. They were my life.

Then we moved from East Central Minnesota (bringing along 12 horses, mostly decrepit rescues) to the southern Ozarks, where one day I spied a business card on a café bulletin board. A nearby breeder had miniature horses for sale. We’d bred miniature donkeys in Minnesota and really liked them, so we decided to take a look.

Chessie and Kiaya, American Miniature Horse Registry miniature mares

The die was cast. Before the month was out I owned a cob-type miniature stallion and two mares. Eight years later we have a few surviving full-size horses that will stay until departing for horse heaven, but now I like the little ones better.

So in 2003, when I decided to fulfill a dream and own sheep, I opted for a pint-size breed. Dumb luck led me to a woman dispersing her flock of arguably the best Miniature Cheviots in America. I started with her foundation ewe and a gorgeous ram lamb. Now I raise them, I’m a co-founder of the American Classic Cheviot Sheep Association and have 24 of these great little sheep.

Wolf Moon Wren, Classic Cheviot

Why miniature livestock? For starters, they require less housing space, pasture and feed than full-size counterparts. Less elaborate (thus less costly) fencing often suffices. Minis like pet pigs or Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats are sometimes acceptable where zoning laws prohibit full-size livestock. They are easier to handle and less intimidating than everyday livestock, especially for beginners, children, old folks and the physically challenged, not only due to their size but because many types of miniatures are specifically bred for calm disposition and tractability. Chores such as hoof trimming, shearing or clipping, giving shots and administering wormer are easier, as is training smaller animals for show or fun. Breeders on one side of America ship miniature lambs, kids and piglets via air, two to a standard large-size dog crate and most species are locally transportable in a van or SUV.

Storey's Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock coverBut minis aren’t simply window dressing. Consider, for example, Lowline cattle, a naturally pint-size Angus breed developed in at the New South Wales Department of Agriculture’s Trangie Agricultural Research Centre in Australia and widely disseminated throughout North America. The average Lowline cow is only 40 inches tall and weighs 800 pounds, while bulls are 42 to 44 inches tall and weigh about 1200 pounds, making Lowlines 50 to 60 percent the size of most beef cattle. They require approximately one-third the feed of their full-size peers yet according to Trangie Agricultural Research Centre figures they produce five percent more marbling than other breeds, half the backfat of full-size Angus, 30 percent more rib eye per hundredweight than any other breed, and they dress out at up to an amazing 76 percent live weight. At the 2009 National Western Stock Show’s National Lowline Sale a two year old cow named MCR Everlasting topped the sale at $13,250 while two more cows brought $10,000 each. Bred fullblood Lowline cows averaged $6986 and bulls, $3650. What’s not to like about Lowline cattle!

Miniature HerefordsMiniature JerseysGuinea HogsBabydoll Southdown sheep, Miniature Llamas and Nigerian Dwarf goats to name just a few – buyers want them and are willing to pay. The time for raising miniature livestock is now. That’s why I wrote Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock.

Next time: My little sheep.

Livestock Farming Requires Responsibility and Commitment

Heather Smith ThomasI’ve been raising cattle and horses since I was a teenager growing up on my parents’ ranch in the late 1950s, and have been writing about these animals nearly that long. My husband and I have been raising horses and cattle together for the past 44 years. My life work and major goal has been to learn all I can about the care, handling and management of these wonderful animals, and to share what I learn – in my books and magazine articles.


A 16-year-old Heather Smith Thomas and her first filly Khamette.

A question I’ve been asked by a number of people is: what’s most important in raising livestock. What are the biggest challenges?

Heather Smith Thomas and a foal she raised named Sadie

I’d say the biggest factor is responsibility and commitment. In the wild, Mother Nature is in charge of things. If an animal has a serious problem it dies. If there are problems with a birth, the mama and baby both die. It’s survival of the fittest and luckiest (because even normal, healthy animals sometimes fall victim to freak accidents or to predators). With domestication by humans comes a responsibility for the welfare of the animals in our care.

We breed them to raise and use for our purposes, and they would not exist except for us. So we must give them optimum care to make sure they stay healthy, and make sure that their birth and growing up is safe – and that their interaction with humans is positive and happy. We are their guardians.

Thus we must take their welfare seriously, and commit to raising and caring for them as best we can. Tending to their health and comfort should come first, in our various priorities and activities. This is why taking care of animals is so good for kids. Children who have animals or help their parents take care of animals learn responsibility, compassion and a good work ethic at an early age. The animal chores must come first, ahead of other “fun” things or activities. And if an animal has a problem of some kind, you drop everything else you are doing and take care of that animal.

A current photo of Heather Smith Thomas and a cow

My advice on raising cattle or horses is to learn all you can about taking care of them and how to keep them healthy and safe. Get advice from other stockmen or a good large animal veterinarian if you have questions. Read books and articles about the handling, care and management of these animals. Spend time with your own horses and cattle and learn about them – their personalities and their needs. Knowing your own animals intimately helps you understand them and learn how to handle them most appropriately, and also gives you a better clue regarding what’s “normal” behavior for them and what is abnormal, which would enable you to tell the early signs of illness (or the signs of early labor if your mare or cow is preparing to give birth).

Storey Guide to Raising Horses coverFor a good source of information about breeding and raising horses, I recommend my book Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses (new edition just published). It has a large section on basic horsekeeping, a section on health care, and a final section on breeding (selecting breeding stock, genetics, care of the broodmare, keeping a stallion, foaling, care of the newborn foal, etc.). For information on how to safely handle horses and to make sure they are well mannered and easy to handle and train, I recommend my book Storey’s Guide to Training Horses.

Basic cattle care is covered in the new edition of my book Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle – everything from breeds and genetics to calving, calf health, weaning, getting the cows rebred, pastures and fencing, feeding, keeping cattle healthy, tips on buying and selling cattle. For the serious cattle raiser, my two books Essential Guide to Calving and the Cattle Health Handbook together serve as an in-depth reference. In these two books I’ve Storey Guide to Raising Beef Cattle covertried to address all the issues a cattle raiser might face, and have also sprinkled the text with real-life examples of various animals on our ranch – their challenging health problems or calving situations and how we dealt with those to save the animal.

Veterinary textbooks and animal nutrition texts are difficult for the average person to read. Books for novices rarely contain enough information and cannot answer some of the questions that arise. My goal in writing about cattle and horse care is to bridge that gap and present solid information (more in-depth than you generally find in publications for new owners) but I try to discuss it in ways that are very easy to understand and interesting to read.

For more background on my writing and to read about some of the adventures I’ve had raising cattle and horses, and things I’ve learned along the way, check out my bi-weekly blog Notes From Sky Range Ranch.

Tomato Garden Planning: Winter Dreaming

Lawrence Davis-HollanderTomatoes are an integral part of any vegetable garden and winter is the right time to start dreaming about those sun warmed fresh from the vine vegetables known as tomatoes? Vegetables? They’re fruits right? Not according to the Supreme Court. In May 1883 the court ruled they are vegetables for the purpose of commerce. In my opinion the court has some misses from time to time. Botanically they are fruits.

There are hundreds of varieties available by seed, and the best way to ensure you grow the tastes and type you really want is to start your own seeds. If you are not already getting some of the dozens of seed catalogs available request some of them. It’s a winter tradition amongst gardeners and great bed time reading. Or browse the web as many of them are now on-line.

Think about what kind of tomatoes you want to eat and how you are going to use them. You may want to consult a few recipes now to plan ahead. If you are limited to a small amount of garden space you may want to grow a few of the large slicing types. If a patio or balcony is your garden consider growing cherry tomatoes. There are some dwarf “patio” plants producing less than tasty fruits. Any type of tomato can be grown in a container, although regular full size (indeterminate) varieties will need staking, produce smaller size fruit and yields. There are many choices of types (such as slicers, cherries, paste), colors, sizes, and flavors (highly subjective and not often described).

If possible you want to plant your tomatoes in ground that has not had tomatoes previously planted for many years. New ground tends to be uncontaminated by the spores of disease causing microorganisms like late blight, Phytophthora, which obliterated the tomato crop in the Northeast this past summer. Soil is not the only source of this disease. Mulching tomatoes, giving them plenty of air circulation, spacing plants far apart, and not visiting your garden while it’s wet may reduce spread of this and other tomato diseases

Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook coverI prefer growing heirloom varieties both for their taste and honest beauty. Sources for these seeds now abound, and many old-school catalogs are selling a few of these of these varieties amongst their hybrid offerings. Good sources for heirlooms include the Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek, Southern Seed Exposure, Sand Hill Preservation Center, and Fedco. There are some good hybrids available, and, while they claim disease resistance, generally they aren’t better than the heirlooms. I still like some of the older Burpee varieties, the Boy and Girl series. Some hybrids have just had the taste bred out of them. Heirlooms can perform more inconsistently than hybrids and like vintage wines there are varieties that outperform some years and underperform in others. A number of new disease-resistant hybrid varieties are in the pipeline, it will be interesting to see whether they remember to make them taste good.

Wherever you reside if you have a good southern exposure window sill you can probably manage to grow a few plants. Starting under lights works great, and a little bottom heat will help them along. Start seeds about eight weeks before your last frost.

Rotate your plants so they get maximum exposure, and if you get some warm days in later spring you can put them outside in a partly shaded, wind protected location, and before planting make sure they are hardened off.

If you want buy plants try to buy them from a small nursery or farmer who grows them.

It is more likely the plants will have less or no chemicals on them, the quality will be much better than mass produced plants, and you are patronizing someone from your community. When buying plants look at them carefully – they should have sturdy stems, lots of foliage, a healthy mid to deep green color, and no yellow or brown spots.

Americans have a passion for tomatoes. Grow or buy the good ones. Try to keep your winter hankering to dreaming. Right now the store bought ones will generally be pretty disappointing. If you must, try some of the grape tomatoes, they haven’t been too bad.

Lawrence Davis-Hollander

LD-H is author of Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook, founder and former director of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, principle of Dynamic Change Life Coaching, and co-director of Wellness Integral, Inc.

Jimmy Carter and the Marsh Rabbit: ‘Experts’ Don’t Always Have the Answer

Bennett headshotYears ago, when Jimmy Carter was President, an Associated Press features writer, the late Louise Cook, kept me in her file as a “rabbit expert.” Louise had noted my magazine and newspaper writings, talks and books about raising rabbits and occasionally called me up when some rabbit story was in the news.

One such instance involved President Carter.

Storey Guide to RabbitsIf you are old enough, you may recall the time Mr. Carter was fishing from a boat in a river somewhere in the South, when a wild rabbit, swimming in the river, hopped into his boat and tried to bite him. Not even the Secret Service could stop it. The story made headlines all over the country. The enterprising Louise Cook decided to round out the story the next day by consulting a “rabbit expert.” Why in the world, she asked when she phoned me, would a rabbit want to bite Mr. Carter?

In truth, I had no idea. I didn’t even know that rabbits were interested in swimming, so my wise guy reply was simply that the rabbit behaved that way because “It must have been a Republican rabbit.”

And no kidding, that’s the way her story ran in newspapers throughout the United States.

It was only years later that your so-called expert learned there is a wild rabbit variety called the marsh rabbit that sometimes swims in southern waters. It is not the kind, however, found in a certain southern recipe of some renown. You may have heard of “marsh rabbit dinners,” which some people in the region relish. Those are prepared from muskrats, trapped in great numbers for their pelts, and often served at community gatherings.

I have no idea if Jimmy Carter likes marsh rabbits, real or muskrat. It’s my expert opinion, however, that at least one of the real ones didn’t care for him.

Bob Bennet is the author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits, available here.