For my first seed review, I will be confessing my love for the beautiful Black Beauty Tomato from Baker Creek Seeds.
This was my first year growing it, and I’m sure there will be many years to come. I am in the Sacramento Area, in USDA Zone 9b.
I like experimenting with different types of tomatoes every year, but I think the Black Beauty will be a new staple in my garden.
What caught my eye in the Baker Creek catalog was obviously the beautiful deep color, which is almost black. This deep color is due to the expression of anthocyanin, which is what causes the deep color in blackberries as well. It is advertised as being world’s darkest tomato, and by the pictures I believe it! Mine had more colors in it, but we’ll get to that later.
- Seed Starting
- The Harvest
- To wrap it up,
- Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide
- Step 6 – Plant Your Vegetables Right
- Ten vegetables with the best payback
- Life at The Clare
- Plan your Garden Layout
- Decide What Vegetables to Grow
- When to Start Planting in Chicago
- Garden Care Tips
This was the easy part.
I used a bottom-watering system for starting my seeds this year, so it was a pretty hands-off process. The germination rate on this variety was amazing!
I always plant extra seeds in case my hands-off approach fails, but I definitely didn’t need the extra. I planted about 6-7 seeds just hoping for 1 healthy seedling. If my memory is serving me correctly, every seed sprouted. I ended up giving away a few of these as gifts to my family and coworkers.
The seedlings were easy to tell apart from my other tomato plants because they had a deep purple stem – the stem seemed to be stronger as well.
There was no issue here!
I started these seedlings later in the spring, so they were “hardened-off” at a young stage. This definitely helped strengthen the stem by subjecting them to the elements so early. Anyway, I was impatient and I planted these seedlings in the planter beds when they were only about 3 inches tall.
About 1 week after transplanting the seedlings to the planter beds, we had a surprise hail storm. Unfortunately I wasn’t home to run outside and protect them with an umbrella!
This put the growth behind, because the seedlings lost some leaves. But again, these guys were strong so they bounced back and lived on!
This summer has been quite hot, and I have to admit that our garden has been neglected here and there due to vacations (*cough*…and laziness *cough*).
So at first, most of our tomatoes were on the smaller side.
Pretty though, right?
Now, 2 months in to production, we have had several big, beautiful tomatoes as well!
So as you can see, my tomatoes aren’t pure ‘black.’ They are more of a tye-dye red and black, and I think I like this color variety more!
I am not sure if this is due to them being cross-pollinated with my other tomatoes? If you know the answer, I’d love to hear it!
Thank goodness I haven’t seen any hornworms on any of my tomato plants. But the basic worms have good taste and like these best. I can’t complain, since they have only eaten into a whopping 4 of these tomatoes this year.
Otherwise, this variety is doing pretty well pest-wise!
Again, not any issues – which is why this is one of my new favorites!
With my other tomato varieties this year, blossom-end rot has been quite challenging.
To the right, you see the ONE Black Beauty tomato that has had this. Seriously, just one.
And it’s a heart shape! So if anything this brought me joy <3
The smaller tomatoes have had some cracking as you can see in the picture, but this doesn’t bother me at all!
When the tomatoes are sliced, you can’t even tell.
I think this may actually be related to our heat-waves or inconsistent watering. It doesn’t seem like an issue for the variety itself.
Phew, it took way too long to get to my favorite section of this post.
THE TASTE IS AMAZING.
And look how meaty it is!!
Baker Creek Seeds describes it as a rich, earthy flavor. But to me, it is rich and sweet. “Earthy” makes me think that it would taste like plant, but it doesn’t. It is one of the sweetest, most delicious-tasting tomatoes I have ever had.
I usually like to top my tomatoes with balsamic vinegar and basil, but not with this one. It is sweet enough on it’s own, and I don’t want anything masking the delicious flavor. I honestly just snack on these raw. The big tomato in the picture above? I inhaled that entire thing 5 minutes after the picture was taken.
Now, I know everyone’s senses are different. So I really hope that I don’t let you down on this one. But if your taste-buds are anything like mine, you will love this tomato.
To wrap it up,
Growing this tomato has been so much fun this year. If you are looking for a new and unique tomato to try, I think this is a good choice. PLUS, anthocyanin (what gives them the black color) is really healthy for you!
So XOXO, Black Beauty. (get it? the tomatoes below look like an X & O 😀 )
Have you tried this variety before? And if so, did yours have red on them as well? Let me know what you thought!
Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide
Step 6 – Plant Your Vegetables Right
Much of the success of your garden depends on when and how your vegetables are planted.
When to plant. How early you can plant depends on the hardiness of the vegetables and the climate in your area. Certain vegetables can withstand frost while others cannot. In Table 3 vegetables are classified as hardy, half-hardy, tender, or very tender. This information along with the date of the average last 32 freeze in your area will help you to determine safe planting dates.
Planting by the moon is a favorite topic for discussion among many gardeners. There is no scientific evidence to support planting by the moon; planting studies have shown no relation between the different phases of the moon and good production of crops.
How to plant. There are no magic tricks or difficult techniques in starting seeds or in setting plants. But there are some simple steps you should follow to insure success.
Seeds. In starting seeds in the garden, follow these directions:
- Use disease-free seed.
- Mark out straight rows to make your garden attractive and to make cultivation, insect control, and harvesting easier. To mark a row, drive two stakes into the ground at either edge of the garden and draw a string taut between them. Shallow furrows, suitable for small seed, can be made by drawing a hoe handle along the line indicated by the string. For deeper furrows, use a wheel hoe or the corner of the hoe blade. Use correct spacing between rows.
- Hill or drill the seed. “Hilling” is placing several seeds in one spot at definite intervals in the row. Sweet corn, squash, melons, and cucumbers are often planted this way. Hilling allows easier control of weeds between the hills of plants. “Drilling,” which is the way most seeds are sown, is spacing the seeds by hand or with a drill more or less evenly down the row.
- Space seeds properly in the row. The number of seeds to sow per foot or hill is suggested in Table 2. Space the seeds uniformly. Small seeds sometimes can be handled better if they are mixed with dry, pulverized soil and then spread.
- Plant at proper depth. A general rule to follow is to place the seed at a depth about four times the diameter of the seed. Cover small seeds such as carrots and lettuce with about to inch of soil. Place large seeds such as corn, beans, and peas 1 to 2 inches deep. In sandy soils or in dry weather, plant the seeds somewhat deeper.
- Cover seeds and firm soil. Pack soil around the seeds by gently tamping the soil with your hands or an upright hoe. This prevents rainwater from washing away the seeds.
- Thin to a desirable number of plants (see Table 2) when they are young. Remove the weakest plants. Do not wait too long before thinning or injury will result from crowding.
Table 3 : Planting Chart – Timing
- This classification is used to determine earliest safe date to plant vegetables. Hardy vegetables can be planted as soon as the ground can be prepared. Half-hardy vegetables can be planted as early as 2 to 3 weeks before the average date of the last 32 freeze in the spring. Tender vegetables should be planted from the time of the last average 32 freeze to one week later. Very tender crops should be planted 2 to 3 weeks after the last average 32 freeze. See Fig. 2 for average dates of last 32 degree freeze in Illinois.
- For southern Illinois March-June plantings can be made approximately 2 weeks earlier and July-September plantings 2 weeks later than for central Illinois. For northern Illinois March-June plantings should be about 2 weeks later and July-September plantings about 2 weeks earlier than for central Illinois.
- Time required to grow plants from seed before setting in field. This period will vary depending on temperature and other conditions under which plants are grown.
- Use plants. See page 20 for discussion on planting depths for plants.
- Throughout much of North America with the exception of the very hottest and coldest areas, garlic is best planted in the fall just as many of the hardy spring bulbs are. As far as timing, it should be done before the soil freezes. In most areas this planting date is sometime in late September through October. Planting at this time allows the cloves to have a chance to root and grow a shoot to the soil surface in the fall. Then in the spring, growth commences immediately when the frost goes out of the soil allowing lush growth. If planting is delayed until spring planting should be done as early as possible (March-April). This will be dependent upon whether the soil can be properly prepared. A note about spring planted garlic. Garlic from spring plantings does not come close to making quality heads of garlic as a fall planting will. Garlic planted in spring has to mature in the hotter, dryer conditions of summer thus lowering the quality quite a bit.
Transplants. Some vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, pepper, sweet potato, and tomato, are usually started in the garden by means of transplants. You can buy these plants or grow them yourself indoors. Follow these directions when setting plants into the garden:
- Transplant if possible on a cloudy day or in the evening.
- Handle plants with care. About an hour before transplanting, thoroughly water plants and soil in the containers (pots, bands, flats, etc.). Roots of plants in flats should be blocked out with a knife to get as much soil as possible with each root. Carefully remove plants without disturbing the roots. Keep a ball of soil around the roots. Keep the roots moist at all times when they are out of the soil.
- Dig a hole large enough so that the transplanted plant sets at the same depth that was growing in the container. The only exception to this rule is if you have tall, spindly tomato plants. They can be set on an angle in a shallow trench. Cover the stem with soil roots will form along the stem.
- Use starter solution to get plants off to a fast start. Mix an all-soluble fertilizer high in phosphorus (e.g. 1-52-17 or 10-50-10) at the rate of approximately 1 tablespoon per gallon of water. When you transplant, place about 1 cup of the solution around the roots of each plant.
- Cover the roots with soil and firm the soil tightly around the plant.
- Protect plants from heat, wind, or cold if necessary. Plant protectors (sometimes called hot caps) made of paper or plastic are available to lessen trouble from frost in the spring. Homemade devices can be made from baskets, boxes, or jars. Do not leave the protector over the plants longer than necessary. If it gets warm during the daytime, remove the protector or open it so that the plants receive ventilation.
Ten vegetables with the best payback
If you’re going to take a shot at growing your own dinner this year, a good place to start is by picking the crops that offer the best return on your investment.
Experienced gardeners quickly learn that some types of home-grown vegetables work out better than others.
Choices such as onions and peppers, for example, perform reliably well with few setbacks throughout most of the country, while crops such as broccoli and spinach often run into bug threats and have fairly narrow planting time-windows.
The best bets are crops that are both easy to grow and that produce high yields in limited space.
What are those? Try these 10 vegetables that offer some of the best bang for the buck:
- They’re not the easiest crops to grow in areas that are prone to blight diseases and high heat, but the payoff is huge. The taste and nutritional value of a home-grown tomato picked at peak ripeness is light years ahead of supermarket fare.
- The cost of store-bought tomatoes coupled with the likely yield – even when disease short-circuits production – makes the tomato gardening’s best investment.
- Tomato plants are easy to start from seed, and the fruits are versatile for canning and freezing, as well as fresh eating. Stake plants to save space.
- Both hot and sweet bell peppers are easy to grow and have few in-the-garden problems. They thrive in warm weather.
- Yields are good, store prices make the effort worth it, and peppers are nearly as versatile as tomatoes in the kitchen.
- The biggest drawback: it takes weeks longer with more risk of loss if you’re shooting for maximum-nutrition, fully ripe red/orange/yellow fruits. Green peppers are perfectly edible, but are ones that haven’t fully matured.
- Overcome the main problem of disease-spreading cucumber beetles, and you’ll swim in fresh cucumbers for months. Turn cukes into pickles or relish and the value goes even higher.
- Cucumbers are cheap and easy to start from seed planted directly in the garden.
- Avoid pesticides, and spread out the harvest by planting new seeds every few weeks throughout summer. If wilt kills the older plants, young ones will then take over production.
- One of the few perennial veggies, asparagus is planted by roots and can produce weeks’ worth of nutritious shoots each year for decades.
- Because it’s a once-and-done planting, the long-term investment is high – especially given the cost of store-bought asparagus. Give asparagus its own patch so spreading shoots don’t migrate into other crops.
- Weeds are the main challenge, although plants occasionally are attacked by a beetle. Otherwise,
asparagus is drought-tough, low-care and even good-looking when the ferny foliage opens post-harvest.
- Hardly anything bothers any of the onion family. Just keep these watered, and they’re all among the cheapest, easiest-to-grow crops.
- Onions aren’t that expensive in stores, but are good keepers and versatile.
- Despite their ease of growth, leeks, shallots and garlic fetch a good price at the store, making them winners in any cost/benefit analysis.
- Leaf types are easiest to grow and keep churning out fresh spring salads until heat turns them bitter. But new crops can be planted for fall in cool climates and even throughout winter in milder
climates or with protection.
- All lettuce is cheap to grow from direct-planted seed. The main adventure is keeping the bunnies from beating you to harvest.
- Excess-harvest jokes about zucchini are legendary, but almost all summer squashes are tireless producers – that is, until either mildew or squash vine borers take them down. But by then, even a short-circuited production will have paid you back royally for the minor cost of seed.
- Both squash problems are stoppable, or use the same trick as with cucumbers – seed several times so you’ll have a backup supply in the wings.
- Like asparagus, rhubarb is a perennial vegetable. You’ll get years of strawberry/rhubarb pies and strawberry/rhubarb jelly from the stalks your expanding plants will put out each season.
- Other than rotting in wet clay (a no-no for any vegetable garden anyway), rhubarb is low-care and long-lasting. And it’s a bold, tropical-looking plant with its large leaves and reddish stalks even if you don’t eat it.
- Note that only the stalks are edible. The leaves are high in oxalic acid and should be cut off when harvesting.
- Bush beans are another inexpensive, seed-grown crop that usually yields several pickings before the pods peter out. Because they’re among the quickest from seed to harvest, beans can go in several times from spring through summer.
- Pole beans twine up supports and continue yielding for weeks or even months – longer than most bush beans, which top out at 12 to 18 inches tall.
- Other than groundhog and rabbit attacks and occasional forays with a beetle, beans are usually reliable.
10) Snow peas
- Timing is everything with these. Snow peas are ones that are eaten pods and all and are excellent for fresh snacking as well as in stir-fries.
- The secret is that they like it cool. In cold climates, plant pea seeds directly in the garden as soon as the ground thaws in spring. In warm climates, plant seeds from early fall through end of winter as a winter to early-spring crop.
- Grow the vines up a fence or similar support to save space, and they’ll give you weeks of pod-picking before heat shuts down production.
George Weigel is a Pennsylvania-based horticulturist, garden consultant, author and newspaper garden columnist. His website is http://georgeweigel.net.
(All photos by George Weigel)
Life at The Clare
Planting your own garden is a wonderful way to learn about plants, try new vegetable varieties, help the environment, and provide your own fresh fruits and vegetables. Gardening in Chicago can be challenging – especially if your garden is organic. But with proper planning, anyone in Chicago can have a successful garden!
Plan your Garden Layout
Vegetables grow at West Walnut Garden. Photo from NeighborSpace.
Your garden will look very different based on where you live in Chicago. Wherever you’ll be growing, it’s important to remember that most plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day to produce a harvest of vegetables.
If you have a yard, you can plant directly in the ground or build raised beds. Building raised beds is simple, especially if you buy a kit from a home improvement store. Try to avoid treated wood when building a raised bed, as the chemicals used in treatment can easily leach into your soil and vegetables. Next, choose a soil mix to put in your raised bed – don’t use potting soil. To finish, mulch the top of the raised bed to protect the soil.
If you have an apartment or condo with no lawn, plant a small vegetable garden right on your balcony! How you accomplish this will vary greatly on your growing space. Many people buy colorful pots for growing, but there are plenty of vertical planter boxes for sale online too.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a balcony, there are many urban gardens around Chicago – join one for the season! Find Chicago community gardens on NeighborSpace or by using the Chicago Urban Agricultural Mapping Project. Not all of the gardens on these lists will have space available this year, but many list contact information so that you can reach out and ask!
Decide What Vegetables to Grow
Vegetables grow at Brickyard Garden. Photo from NeighborSpace.
Once you’ve found your spot, it’s time to decide which vegetables to grow. If it’s your first time gardening or your space is small, stick with 3-4 of your favorite plants or herbs so that growing is more manageable.
Many people choose to experiment with heirloom varieties of plants in their gardens. Heirloom plants are old varieties that are open pollinated and have seeds that can be saved for next year. What makes these plants so special is that you cannot find many of them in a grocery store. Grocery store varieties of plants have been bred to withstand machine picking and travel, often at the expense of flavor and texture. With a garden, you have the option to expose yourself and others to more delicious and beautiful varieties of plants.
The University of Illinois has great advice on which vegetables to grow. Some vegetables that grow well in Illinois include:
- Summer squash
Some varieties are more suited to Chicago than others. This is especially important to keep in mind when planting an organic garden, as heirloom vegetable varieties from Illinois will better resist disease and pests in Chicago than those from another area of the country.
To buy seeds online, try Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which focuses on heirloom varieties. There are also many excellent garden centers around Chicago with knowledgeable staff to help you buy vegetable seed varieties to best suit your space. Try Adams and Sons, Gethsemane Garden Center, Fertile Ltd, or Sprout Home.
One last note on deciding what to grow: some plants aren’t good companions, which means that they can keep each other from producing a great crop. Conversely, others actually help each other perform better! Check this chart to find out if the vegetables that you’re planting work well together.
When to Start Planting in Chicago
Monticello Garden in Chicago. Photo from NeighborSpace.
Chicago is in the USDA Zone 6a, which means that the growing season is generally from late April until early October. But don’t wait until the last week of April to begin! To ensure the longest growing season, you’ll need to start in March. Check your seed packets to determine exactly when to plant each vegetable.
Many plants, like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers should be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Fill small containers called flats with seed-starting soil and plant your seeds.
Once your seedlings sprout and develop into plants, it’s time to harden them off. To harden off seedlings, place them outside during the day and bring them inside at night for about two weeks. Transplant the seedlings in your garden or outdoor containers after last frost.
This is also the time to plant seeds for plants which don’t do well with transplanting. Carrots, squash and cucumber are some examples of vegetables which should be planted directly into the garden.
Garden Care Tips
To ensure a great crop, you’ll need to water and weed your plants frequently. Some areas have pests such as insects or rabbits that you’ll need to plan for. If you’re unsure what pests are in your neighborhood, ask your neighbors with a garden!
Guard against disease by buying disease resistant varieties and planting your plants in well-draining, healthy soil. Water your plants at the soil, instead of on the leaves. Also make sure your plants aren’t too close together, as airflow is important to help plants stay dry. For other ways to naturally resist disease, research some natural pest control remedies.
By planning your garden space, including a selection of heirloom varieties suited to Chicago, planting early, and preparing for disease and pests, you’re sure to have an excellent garden this year! For more information on gardening in Chicago, check out some of our favorite resources:
Chicago Farm and Table
University of Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide