We’ve been so hugely busy lately, especially with our fall from the roof, that it’s unbelievable! But between canning green beans, lying down to rest, canning tomato sauce, writing, etc., today I finally took time to walk through our front yard and smell the flowers! How gorgeous they all are right now! The lilies are in full bloom (and full scent), the purple coneflowers are huge, morning glories and clematis climbing wildly everywhere. We’re really enjoying our flower-walks in the morning!

Readers’ Questions:

Growing good tomatoes

WOW, your tomatoes look superb!! Did you have the heavy amounts of rain and humidity that we had in Central Wisconsin? My plants for the most part look icky. Too much rain. So how did you get your tomatoes to do that in a rainy year?

What can I do to improve my chances of good tomatoes for next year? Should I put a cover crop on the soil? I use lots of chicken manure mixed in with bedding. Did you cover the ground under your plants so the plant doesn’t touch the ground?

I appreciate any advice you may give to improve the tomato situation. I am not the only one around here with problems either. For miles around here people are complaining their tomatoes are poor or non-existent.

Thanks so much for any advice! I am glad you are doing much better. I thank God you and Will didn’t break your necks!

Cindy Hills
Wild Rose, Wisconsin

You aren’t alone with the flooded, crappy garden. All over the country, folks with gardens that aren’t perfectly drained are complaining of poor yields and non-existent crops. Tilling in well-rotted compost is ALWAYS a good idea and can help with drainage. But don’t put in too much manure or you’ll get huge plants and little fruit. Our tomatoes and other crops did so well because we’re on a huge gravel ridge, with better than perfect drainage. Of course, we’ve worked in lots of rotted manure and other organic material through the few years we’ve been here, so the soil is now a nice gravelly loam. I usually mulch my tomato plants, but we got behind this year, with so much to do that we didn’t get her done. Oh well…Next year…

You’re right! We’re very thankful we DIDN’T break our necks…or worse. We both narrowly missed a metal garbage can and a pine tree trunk about 4″ thick! — Jackie

Canning pickles

Reading you has inspired me in so many ways, and I am gradually learning self-sufficiency techniques. I think I’m doing pretty well, but I’ve hit a snag.

I followed an old recipe that was my great grandmother’s…spicy pickles. My first ever canning! They tasted great fresh, but I canned them according to her method, which I’ve since read isn’t safe.

According to her instructions, I poured boiling hot pickling brine over cukes cut and packed into boiled jars, then lidded them, flipped them upside down and left them ’til morning.

When the jars were cool, I checked them, and the ones that didn’t seal we refrigerated and ate, but most of the jars sealed. I took off the rings and picked the jars up by their lids to check the seal.

My sons had been eating those pickles, but I’ve recently read that they could be tainted, and I stopped them. Should I toss the remaining pickles? Or can I re-can them, with new lids and a water bath?

Kate Bastedo
Lawrenceville, Georgia

The main reason we water bath our pickles is to ensure the seal…something that inverting the jars didn’t do a real good job with. It seems like a few always didn’t seal. If your jars are sealed, I wouldn’t be afraid to eat them, but of course I can’t tell you to eat them, for fear of liability! — Jackie

Germinating elderberry seeds

Do elderberry seeds have to go through a bird to germinate? My mom says some seeds have to go through a bird.

Ed Taylor
Fieldon, Illinois

No, they don’t have to go through a bird, although that’s how many wild elderberry bushes got their start. They DO need to be cold stratified. That just means that they have to undergo a period of chill before they’ll germinate. If you plant a patch of seeds now, they won’t come up until spring. Then you can transplant them, as you wish. — Jackie

Waterbath spaghetti sauce

Can you water bath spaghetti sauce (no meat) but has mushrooms in it (the store bought/canned type)? I made lots, added about one tablespoon of lemon juice to it, and water bathed it for 40 min. but someone said I should have pressure cooked it.

Meredith Wendt
Rockford, Illinois

Most recipes for meatless spaghetti sauce, including those with onion, peppers, and/or mushrooms, can safely be water bath processed. Don’t try it with meat, however! And do be sure your tomatoes are an acid variety or add 2 Tbsp lemon juice to each quart of sauce…just to be safest. — Jackie

Refrigerator pickle

Can I make a simple “hot mix” by placing sliced peppers, carrots, celery, etc. in a jar and cover with apple cider vinegar? For fridge only, not for pantry.

David Keefer
Willard, Ohio

Yes, you can. Just make sure it stays covered with vinegar in the fridge. This is one form of refrigerator pickle. — Jackie

Using tins to store dry goods

First of all, Jackie, I’m sorry about the accident and I hope you heal up quick! That has to be painful!

In the latest issue of BHM, in the article about pantries, you mention using tins (what I call popcorn tins) to store dry goods. Do you line these tins with something before putting in your dry goods? I realize they are pretty well rodent proof, but I’m concerned about rust.


Thanks for your concern! Yes, we’re healing…although much slower than we’d like, of course.

No, I don’t line my popcorn tins. I don’t use any rusty ones for food storage, and some of mine are over 19 years old and are still in fine shape. I have absolutely no complaints about using them. — Jackie

Overwintering rosemary

I live in NW Illinois, zone 5. What would be the best way to overwinter my newly planted (this Spring) Rosemary plant? Wish I would have planted two then I could try one outside and one in.

Orion, Illinois

After the weather turns cold and your rosemary goes dormant, what I’d do is to turn a flower pot/landscape pot over, upside down, to protect your plant. Anchor it with a couple of rocks, then gently heap up some mulch, such as straw, around the pot. It should winter fine. In the spring, be sure to uncover the plant fairly early, so it can re-adjust to the weather normally. — Jackie

Spiced crabapples

I made the spiced crabapples from your book. (LOVE THE BOOK). I had more crabapples than liquid so I just put them in a jar and lid and put in the frig. Can I make a small amount of the liquid (I figure 1 cup of vinegar to 1 1/8 cup of sugar) for the one jar and either refrigerate or can with something else?

Kathy Vilseck
Coldwater, Mississippi

Yes! You can certainly do that! All too often, our produce doesn’t fit the “normal” size, juiciness, etc., so we end up with more fruit or syrup. So to make it match up, just make up another partial batch of syrup, add the apples, bring to “hot” and pack the apples, then ladle your hot syrup over the apples. You’re in business! Process as normal. — Jackie


  1. Jackie Jackie Jackie don’t scare us like that again. Being of the same decade, I can tell you the healing process happens when it happens. Garden miseries. Yup three years in a row, 40’s at night and damp wet conditions up and until the fourth of July. If you can grow it in a pot you can a just your growing conditions to get tomato’s no mater what. Tomato blight is the bain of everyone condition here. This years conditions are no less than the years before. I had new ground so late it was rediculious and held the tomato’s in pots till the conditions and new ground was prepared. I dug a trench nearly 12” deep and packed the ground next to the trench then went over 36” and dug another trench the same putting the dirt in the middle of the two trenches. I was rushing to get the cabbage starts into the ground and I looked at all the raise dirt and though now there’s a place for the tomato’s. After all it was a nice raise bed between the cabbage rows. I hauled over the tomato plants dug down 6” and layed the potted plants in a small trench at the top of the heaped dirt and picked all the leaves off each plant and barried the potted area and stem in the ground and left just the top showing… I had so much room I made two lines of plants then added the cages over the heads of each plant. Watered them in with a solution of Shulz bloom and sprinkled oyster shell on the top of the ground and watered them in again. Mid season I’ll start cutting all the suckers at the bottom off and clean the ground around so nothing but the main stem has contact with the ground. Now the tomato plants are just come to the top of the large cages and putting on lots of green tomato’s. So far I haven’t mulched them but with such a late start it may be necessary to do so before all the tomato’s come ripe. If they don’t ripen well we will just cut the green tomato’s up and make a big batch of tomato chutney. The sheltered cabbages are putting on heads. I maybe able to sustain them till late into the garden this fall.

  2. So glad you guys are okay, and healing! Your flowers look wonderful, and I’ll bet they smell just as good!

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