My Precious Tomatoes

A rainbow of fall tomatoes.

My compulsion to garden began with my quest to grow an abundance of tomatoes. I didn’t even like tomatoes until I was about 22 years old. The first time I remember loving the flavor of a freshly-picked, salted tomato was when I lived in Chicago working my first post-college job. I visited friends in Champagne one weekend and bought tomatoes at the farmers’ market. That first bite of beautifully ripe tomato was like heaven on a plate and since then I’ve been hooked. Two years after that tasty bite, I moved to Michigan—where the climate is just right for tomato growing.

My first garden was a success in Michigan, which has a much milder climate than North Central Texas. The harsh Texas summers and drought conditions make gardening a challenge. I decided to approach the objective from a different angle by looking for the best-performing vegetable varieties for my area.

I consulted the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service’s list of recommendations but only found a few tomato varieties for sale at local vendors– Celebrity, Beefsteak and Big Boy are the most commonly available. So I started looking to seed sources and catalogs, hoping to find varieties that would grow well where I lived. Over the last few years, I’ve amassed quite an assortment of seed stock and catalogs. The more I learned about the plentiful tomato varieties, the more intrigued I became with open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of all plants, not just tomatoes.

Peppers: Jalapenos and Serranos

Even though Texas “technically” has a long growing season, the hottest part of the summer is about keeping things alive, not producing. So really we have two short growing seasons with fall being best of all. In the spring I try to grow bush-type tomatoes that ripens (55-70 days) all at once. In July I pull the spent vines and start seeds in the same beds. What sprouts and makes it will produce the best fall fruit. If a volunteer tomato comes up, I let it grow. Every time I’ve done that, it’s produced the most awesome fruit.

After three trial-and-error growing seasons of starting tomatoes from seed, I’ve found that Porter and Porter Improved are the top performing tomato cultivars in my backyard; Willhite Seed has the highest germination rate of all the sources I’ve used; and when a volunteer tomato plant starts growing, let it grow because you will be rewarded for it.

My favorite resources:

Texas Agri-Life Extension http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ — a great resource for all Texas gardeners. If you live in a different state, look for your local extension service. It will be affiliated with the land grant university in your state (Auburn, Michigan State, University of Illinois, Purdue, Texas A&M, etc.)

Willhite Seed
www.willhiteseed.com – everything I’ve ever grown from this supplier has been top notch. They breed their own watermelon seeds! The first year I grew their Porter tomatoes, I had a 98 percent germination rate – that is quality seed!

Botanical Interests
www.botanicalinterests.com – this company is part of the coalition of non-GMO growers and suppliers of seed. They have the best information on their seed packets – tons of information about each variety and cultivar.

Totally Tomatoes
www.totallytomato.com – the 2013 growing season is the first year I’ve used seeds from this supplier. So far so good. They have the most comprehensive selection of tomatoes I’ve ever seen. They also have a wonderful selection of other seeds, especially night shade plants (tomatoes are part of the night shade family).

RH Shumway
www.rhshumway.com – this company has the coolest retro-style catalogue and is one of the best sources for beans. 2013 is the first growing season I’ve used this seed provider. The germination rate has been excellent. It will be awhile before I can report on production.

Victory Seeds www.victoryseeds.com – one of the best sources for open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that grow in most parts of the United States. They produce their own seeds and are a non-GMO seed source.

Baker Creek (rare seeds) www.rareseeds.com – another comprehensive source for heirloom, open-pollinated and non-GMO seeds. I have not grown any seed from this supplier but they have great reviews.

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Trav’s Corner: Cream of Hatch Chile Soup

First, assemble the ingredients:

1 cup Hatch chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded & diced

¾ cup chopped onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 roma tomatoes, diced

1 large avocado, diced

½ cup chopped cilantro

Juice of 1 lime

2 cups half & half

1 cup chicken broth

In a large saucepan, sauté the onion in some olive oil & butter until soft and translucent. Add the chiles and garlic and sauté briefly. Do not allow the garlic to brown. Add the chicken broth and bring to a rolling boil for two minutes. Add the half & half, lime juice, tomato, avocado, and ½ the cilantro. Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Put into bowls and serve with a sprinkle of cilantro and a twist of lime.

Spring is Here

Spring is here in North Central Texas. It is obvious in all the sprouting and flowering plants.

Icelandic Poppy
Daffodil
Ornamental Pear

The winter wheat practically glows in the sun. The daffodils are a bloom and the perennials are starting to come back to life. But I happen to have a greenhouse so I’ve got a bit of a jump on things.

Today it was 78 degrees. It’s February 28. I don’t know what that is going to mean but I don’t think it bodes well for the garden season this year. We’ll see.

But for now I’m happy with what I got going on in my little garden.

View into the greenhouse to the left.
View into the greenhouse to the right.
The herb project.
Someone spilled some of my seeds ... I'm not saying who (Jdubs) but I didn't want to throw them out so I just stuck them in a pot to see what sprouted. I have no idea what this is, maybe tomatoes or peppers
A little tomato is forming. And considering how warm it's been, early season is best.
More tomatoes ... these are Celebrity.

Victual Files: Another Hole in the Wall

If you weren’t going to Newcastle, Texas, you probably wouldn’t have much of a reason to be there. It’s up on the tip of the rolling plains where the hill country turns into dusty west Texas. Around 1950, the town had about 1,500 people living in it, and was a thriving coal mining community. However, they long-ago closed the coal mine, and since there’s not a railroad anywhere close the town’s citizens are mainly those who either are from Newcastle or whose parents and grandparents are from Newcastle. They sit below 500 these days on total population, however something very magical happens in the Fall in that part of the world.

The deer hunters converge.

You see, along with sparse population comes wide open range, and it just so happens that the nearby Brazos River makes for some of the best deer hunting in all of north Texas. At one point in the last century, the area was also known for its incredible dove and quail hunting. However, due to environmental changes, the dove population tends to wain from year to year, and the Bobwhite quail population is close to 25% of what it was just 50 years ago.

Nonetheless, on weekends in the Fall (aside from some of the best 6-man football in the region), you’ll find the town almost doubled in size with four wheel drive trucks, ATV’s, feed corn, and camoflauge from head to toe. You can buy beer and liquor from the stores, and the gas at the gas station is some of the cheapest around. If you venture into Jerry’s Meat Market on the corner of 380 and 380, you can get incredible cuts of beef ribeye steaks, marbled to perfection and cut in the butcher room in the back.

However, across the road there sits a red building that locals know as the local eatin’ joint, and visitors know as the home of the best damn hamburger on Earth. This is: Another Hole in the Wall.

Oh, sure…there’s a drive thru if you are picking up groceries for the family after church on Sunday, but you’ll want to go in to experience what AHitW is all about. In addition to their hamburgers, they have a yearly Big Buck competition and a longest turkey beard competition. Adorning the walls are pictures from previous years; a “yearbook” of sorts showing trophys pre-mount of all the harvested deer and turkeys from the local hunts.

Understand that this isn’t the place to go for a prom date. It’s good food, good company, and all within the close confines of your friendly Newcastle neighbors.

You want coffee? Serve yourself. Cups are on the wall.

You want tea or cokes? The owner, Bob, offers that, too. He will refill your tea glass for you, but it’s all unsweet so you have to spice it up yourself. Cokes are charged by the can, and they have three or four different types of “cokes” here. (In Texas, any type of soda is a “coke”. We often ask, “What sorta coke you want? Dr. Pepper?” )

Bob will even sit with you to discuss OU football or the Cowboys, but if you don’t like cigarette smoke, I suggest you sit along the edges or even the front area. This is his restaurant, and by gawd he’s going to have a cigarette while he’s working.  You can always get your order to go if the smoke bothers you that much, but it’s worth the pain to have this food served right off the grill.

Another Hole in the Wall is named as such because it was the 2nd location of a restaurant in nearby Graham called Hole in the Wall. The owner opened this location in Newcastle, however the original Hole in the Wall is long gone and all that’s left is the sequel. The be frank, the Newcastle location was always the better of the two. When you walk in, you get a menu with an angry looking character on it. Now, AHitW is world famous for its Hog Burger. The Hog is the unofficial mascot, which you’ll find on both the menu and t-shirts available behind the counter.

There’s a daily special along with a list of different regular menu items. Breakfast is served early, and lunch and dinner menus are the same. You can even get a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, but as the menu warns, it’s $21.49 and takes up to 30 minutes to prepare. I’m sure it’s good.

Above the front desk, you’ll see Bob’s wedding photo and his prized Sooner gear. He lets Aggies, Raiders, and Longhorns eat there, but he’ll make sure you remember who won the most recent game.

Aside from the charm and décor, we are here for the food. I mentioned earlier that the burgers are the best on the planet. That’s no hyperbole…they are the best. They are all made to order per your specification, and aren’t stuck on the grill until you order them. In addition, you can get fries, but what you want are the “house chips”: thinly sliced potatoes, fried to a crisp. They are incredible. I think I could eat an entire bucket of these things before I gave up.

If you are hungry, get the mini-cheeseburger. If you are really hungry, get the regular cheeseburger. If you think you are a man, get the Piglet (which is what we are having today). You think you are a badass? Get the Hog. The Piglet is the mini version of the Hog, but you’ll feel your cholesterol and blood sugar spike after eating either one.

This is the Piglet with house chips:

It’s a regular hamburger with bacon, cheese, and a thick slice of grilled ham. A true “ham burger”. Those delicious chips:

I take my Piglet with mayo and all the vege.

This thing is massive, and it’s the smaller version of their famous burger. If you can get your hands around it, you may have to give it a squeeze to get it into your mouth.

I like to take some of the ketchup on the table and squirt it on to my chips, then dab a little of the ketchup onto the burger.

I’m telling you…this is the best burger you can find. There is no better burger than this thing.

For the little guy, he gets the mini with fries:

…and shows his appreciation with a hearty single Gigger. You’ll notice Bob in the background having a smoke and watching TV:

That, my friends and fellow Arcadians, is what small town is all about. Good food, good company, and an experience you won’t soon forget.

Another Hole in the Wall Café

510 Houston St

Newcastle, Texas

The Garden is Calling

The Garden is calling me … I received two new seed catalogs. Yea!

All kinds of organic, heirloom and hybrid varieties.

Other cool garden accessories and products…

For tonight … that’s all I got. Been burning the candle from both ends this week, but  I’ll be dreaming about the garden tonight. [Also I am having terrible writer’s block. Sometimes this is as good as it gets.]

Random Awesomeness in Pictures

Sometimes things don’t quite come together. Tonight was one of those nights… I had plans for this blog post, but Jdubs is not cooperating so I had to redirect. But now maybe it’s going to be something more awesome than I had originally planned.

I looked through my random photographs and there are several I haven’t been able to use elsewhere. So I decided to write this post as random awesomeness in pictures.

A few days ago United Supermarkets had a sale on berries. I LOVE berries, and since it was cold, I made oatmeal and berry awesome in a bowl. And I have serious coffee every day. This is pressed coffee. The French version of Cowboy Coffee; it’s not for sissies.

French Press Coffee. Old fashioned oats, fresh berries, walnuts and a splash of cream.

Supper tonight. I made vegetable soup and chicken salad from a leftover roast chicken. The bread is the awesome country French bread we got at Central Market on Sunday. Oh and those are the little garden tomatoes I picked when they were still green, just before the killing frost. If you leave them out, they will ripen.

Soup and sandwich supper.

I almost peed my pants when I saw this (at Central Market on Sunday). You know how I love Scharffen Berger chocolate. Well here is a giant block of San Francisco chocolaty awesomeness!

OMG. I've died and gone to chocolate heaven.

The UPS man left a great big cat playhouse on the front porch. (That’s what I told the cat, anyway). Awesomeness in a cat toy.

This is awesome until the cat tries to play at 2 a.m., then not so awesome.

Who doesn’t love Sock Monkey? This hat is random awesomeness!

This Sock Monkey hat was a big hit at the supermarket tonight.

Killing Frost and Terrorist Black Flies

The first day of November was glorious—a bright blue sky, upper 70s, no wind, overnight low in the upper 50s. Totally kick-ass weather for growing a fall crop of tomatoes, eggplants and chili peppers.

This is North Texas …It can be 90 degrees one day and 30 the next; we can have 100-degree temperature swings within the same year.


(February 2011. It was 10 degrees. 113 degrees August 5, 2011 after 10 p.m. )

I knew something was up because the last two days have been filled with black flies acting crazy, terrorizing me – at home, the office, the coffee shop, everywhere.

Black flies are one of the most annoying critters on Plant Earth. I grew up on a ranch with lots of animals pooping nearby, let’s just say you can never have enough fly swats, fly paper or bug zappers. But when the flies swarm and act crazier than usual, you know the weather is about to change. After a sudden killing frost you can walk around and see thousands of fly exoskeletons on the ground.

As a gardener, I know the end is near for my tender annual vegetables—it’s November. I’m in USDA zone 7B with an average first frost date of November 14. But, I’m clinging to the hope that I can nurse my plants along, especially since they just started producing fruit after surviving a wretchedly hot, bone-dry summer. (No exaggeration, it’s on record as the driest, hottest summer since 1950).

So I pulled up my trusty weather app on my iPhone and sure enough … big cold front moving in—decidedly not good for the garden.

I put in an emergency call to handyman husband to get supplies at the hardware store and I made a mad 5 p.m. dash to the feed store to get plastic sheeting. An hour and a half later we have the garden covered. (I am not going back out there to take a picture, Ok I took a picture this morning.)

The temps went from 70 degrees to 45 in about two hours with winds gusting up to 40 mph. I made one last harvest, just in case.

Jalapenos are beautiful, fruity and spicy-delicious right out of the garden.

Serrano peppers just off the vine.

Thanks for the help, sweet husband. Eggplant parmesan is in your future.