Eat your veggies and your chocolate, too!

“Never mind about 1066 William the Conqueror, 1087 William the Second. Such things are not going to affect one?s life … but 1932 the Mars Bar and 1936 Maltesers and 1937 the Kit Kat – these dates are milestones in history and should be seared into the memory of every child in the country.”

– Roald Dahl, author of the children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964

Roald Dahl was very much impressed by chocolate companies when he was growing up in England. Back in the 1920s, he happened to live in a neighborhood to which the famous Cadbury  Company sent test packages to schoolchildren in exchange for their families’ opinions about the company’s new chocolate products. Can you imagine growing up as a taste-tester for one of the world’s most famous chocolate companies? No wonder Roald Dahl wrote the fantastical story about Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, the Oompa-Loompas and the rest of all the characters in the beloved  book and film adaptations.

In Sunday’s column (Feb. 11, 2018), I wrote about how gardeners can grow a sweet chocolate garden filled with perennial and annual flowers and herbs that look and smell like chocolate.

My vegetable garden is another place I can grow my chocolate and eat it, too. This year, I’m growing a “chocolate” salad with organic heirloom ‘Tasmanian Chocolate’ container tomatoes and ‘Brown Dutch’ lettuce. I picked up the lettuce seeds last summer when I visited Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, Monticello.

I like growing my tomatoes in canvas bags so I can move them out of the late-afternoon sun if I need to. ‘Tasmanian Chocolate’ tomatoes produce clusters of rich mahogany  and chocolate-streaked globes with a sweet, earthy taste that also smells delicious on the vine. The ruffled fruits are dense, flattened on the top and slightly ruffled. They grow vigorously on deep-green vines reaching 3-3 1/2 feet tall.

This week, I’m starting a tray of tomato seeds in my greenhouse. The seeds will be sown in cell trays in a soil-less medium 1/4 inch deep, and kept moist on heat mats set at 80-degrees F. under lights for 16 hours each day. I cover the plants at night but remove the tray lids during the day to allow for air circulation. I find that if I don’t provide enough light for germination, my tomato seedlings become leggy very quickly. I rotate my trays every day so each side of the tray receives the same light exposure.

When the seedlings are about 2 inches tall, I transplant them into larger pots in soil with compost and organic fertilizer – all tomatoes, and especially container tomatoes – are hungry plants. I’ll keep the seedlings indoors, and keep monitoring their moisture levels, until the weather permits hardening off. I’m looking for consistent night-time temperatures of 50-50-degrees F. before I’ll move to the canvas bags and place them outside.

I’m also excited to start some ‘Brown Dutch” lettuce in the garden, partly because it sounds so delicious and partly because it was the. most frequently planted lettuce of 17 varieties that Thomas Jefferson consistently grew in his vegetable gardens at Monticello. Southern climates favored sowing the seeds in the fall for winter crops, but for outdoor planting, I like to sow my lettuce seeds directly in the garden in late February and early March for spring harvests that sometimes last through June.

Lettuce seeds will be sown in soil amended with compost and organic fertilizer and kept moist with plenty of sunshine. 1-inch seedlings should be thinned to 6-8 inches apart. It’s important to have row cover ready for cold nights. The biggest challenge I’ve had in growing spring lettuce is keeping varmints, including the rabbit that we inherited from our daughter, away from the tender green lettuce shoots. I’ve started planting loose-leaf lettuce in containers, too; it does well as long as the soil is kept moist, and the container is tilted slightly to capture the sun. I cover the containers at night until temperatures stay around 50-degrees F.

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  • About the Author

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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