Autumn’s Arrival

This year, astronomical autumn and “gardening” autumn arrived pretty much at the same time for me. Astronomical autumn–for most folks, they know this as the autumnal equinox or simply the first day of fall–arrived at 4:44 EDT on September 22. Meteorologists, of course, had already celebrated autumn’s arrival on September 1.

But on September 21, I pulled out all my tomatoes. This had already been a dismal gardening season, tomato-wise. I had enjoyed a few of the smaller, cherry-type tomatoes, but not a single large tomato had ripened on the vine for me. And with night time temperatures regularly in the lower 50s and occasionally in the upper 40s, I knew I wasn’t going to be seeing any vine ripened tomatoes anytime soon.

So I pulled up the plants, carefully removing any tomato that looked as if it had a reasonable chance of ripening in my “secret indoor ripening place” (in other words, in my basement, near my furnace.)

In prior years when I have done this, I’ve gotten at least 3 platters full. This year, the green tomatoes barely filled 1 platter. That’s how dismal a year this was for tomatoes for me.

What can I blame? The deer that ate the tops off the tomatoes just as they were beginning to grow? The remarkably wet June? The remarkably cool nights, beginning in July (tomatoes need warm nights to ripen and we had nights in the upper 50s and low 60s beginning July 25!)? The tomato hornworms, which I can’t recall having in recent memory?

It’s probably some combination of all of the above. But as a gardener who lives for those ripe tomatoes, this was one disappointing season.

On the plus side, even with the deer, there was a bonanza of pole beans. And the lettuce was pretty good too. So there’s always something good about the garden.

Tomato Testing, Grafting and Tasting

An article in the “Science” section of last week’s New York Times about the search for a better tasting tomato (isn’t that vegetable’s holy grail?) led me to muse about this season’s tomato crop.

While overall, it has been a slower season than usual for me, not helped, of course by the fact that deer browse stunted all my tomatoes, there are certain things that have been successes.

The first thing that has been a success, at least in terms of disease resistance, has been the grafted tomatoes. I can’t say that they have grown or produced fruit any quicker than the un-grafted varieties (but that may be due to the deer browse problem and not due to any fault of the tomatoes themselves).

I planted 3 types of tomatoes, and I planted a grafted variety next to an un-grafted variety. In each case, I gave the grafted variety slightly better positioning in the garden so that it got slightly better sun. It didn’t seem to make much difference–but that again may be because the deer ate the tops off at a crucial time in late June.

Where the grafted tomatoes really shone was in disease resistance. By late July there was nothing left of the un-grafted ‘San Marzano.’ It had completely succumbed to a disease or blight–I wasn’t really paying attention because I was focusing on warding off the deer at that point. I suspect it was a disease, however, since none of the other tomatoes in the garden succumbed and blight, from what I understand, is highly contagious.

The grafted ‘San Marzano’ is still going strong and producing fruit–so that is ample reason to speak up for the grafted tomatoes. At least in my garden, every year there is some reason that something attacks the tomatoes.

This year was the perfect storm of attacks on the tomatoes too–or the “everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” year. In June it was the deer and the over-abundance of rain (if there can be such a thing) leading to disease.

In July, it was still the deer, and disease.

In August, I found hornworms, something I don’t think I’ve ever had–or if I have, I’ve had them with the beneficial wasp larva on their backs so I could remove the worms, sequester them somewhere safe and let the larva do their work. This year, no such luck. No larva to be found. And I’m such a sucker, I still can’t kill the big lugs. I just cut them off the plants and put them way over in the woods. They probably die anyway, removed from their food source. But I figure if they have a chance of transforming into a moth, they ought to have it.

So needless to say, with all that going on, there haven’t been a lot of tomatoes yet. I’ve got a lot of green ones on the plants but I haven’t had a lot of red ones. But there’s still time. And if all else fails, I know a few great methods of ripening the green ones. I’m just not into fried green tomatoes and I don’t have the patience to make my Dad’s green tomato relish.

To Graft or Not to Graft

When the New York Times, which writes about gardening about as often as I write about dog grooming, writes about grafted tomatoes, you know we’re onto a trend here. But there it was, at the end of May–a 3 page (online) article about grafted tomatoes.

To be sure, they’re a little late to the game. Grafted tomatoes have been around for awhile. I grew my first last year one last year, and even then, I felt like I was getting into the game late.

Margaret Roach has been blogging about them for a couple of years now. They’re available in several widely respected mail order catalogs. Mine last year came from Territorial and the Times talks about White Flower Farm as well.

This year, I am trialing 3 different varieties for Harris seed. I am trialing heirloom grafted tomatoes next to ungrafted tomatoes to compare vigor, and yield, among other things. Harris recommended that I plant each variety side by side in the same bed, so I did. It’s going to be an interesting experiment, if my experience with last year’s grafted plants is any indication.

Last year, I ordered 1 plant from Territorial, a ‘Tomaccio’ cherry tomato. The only reason I ordered the plant was because I couldn’t get the seed, and to be honest, I didn’t realize it was a grafted plant when I ordered it.

It arrived about a foot tall with a tiny tomato already on it. I planted it and it took off! I think I was harvesting within 5 weeks or so–and every time I walked by the plant, I had dozens of cherry tomatoes to choose from to pop into my mouth. It was a fabulous experience.

The plant was $5.95 and shipping from the West Coast was as pricey as the tomato. It might be less so from an Eastern grower, although with gas prices, perhaps not.

Still, for someone with a very short growing season, this was absolute heaven. Tomatoes are the “holy grail’ for most gardeners and I know very few that don’t want them earlier.

That being said, I think it pays to concentrate on varieties that really produce, like smaller fruiting varieties. For me, ‘Brandywine’ has always given me about 3 tomatoes before frost. So even if the grafted variety doubles the output, what can I expect? 6? I’m hoping for better things from the ‘San Marzano’ that I’m growing. Time will tell.

Before The 3 Day Weekend, Please Reconsider Pesticide Use

If you read my little “Introduction,” it says that I’ve been an organic gardener since 1994. What it should really say is that I’ve been totally organic since then. Before I had been primarily organic, but if something really got out of control, I might resort to a chemical control. In 1994, when I realized I had no butterflies on my property and that butterflies were extremely sensitive to pesticides, I completely swore off them, cold-turkey. As my long-time readers know, my husband, the Spoiler, is not quite so committed, however.

But on occasion, I’ll come across something that just makes my jaw drop and makes me think that even I’ve been living under a rock.

The other day, I was reading something–I don’t even recall what–and it made a passing reference to a golfer who passed away in 1982 after playing 36 holes of golf on a pesticide treated golf course.

At first I thought, “Wow, that’s a lot of golf, ” but then I googled the story. I won’t link to it here because I don’t know the real outcome–I suspect it’s been suppressed. Suffice it to say the 36 rounds of golf were over 3 days–and the man was a Navy pilot, a fitness freak, self-described, who had complained of illness when playing on this course before. He died a grotesque and horrible death. The pesticide is still on the market and is sold to the home gardener for use on edible crops.

Better yet, this is not the only report of illness linked to this pesticide and the EPA lists it as a probable carcinogen–and yet, this weekend, we can all waltz right into our garden centers and big box sores and get it if we have a few spots on our plants–because it is a fungicide.

So I ask you all, please, to reconsider what you’re doing in the garden.

Vegetable Gardening Made Easier?

As an organic gardener I follow the practices of the Scotts company carefully. On the one hand, they are a sponsor of an organization to which I belong–the Garden Writers–and they are very generous to that group in helping it with its annual conference so I am always grateful for that.

But on the other, as someone who is committed to organic gardening, I find that there are very few of their products that I can support (I do use their organic potting soil) and there are some (Round-up, for example) that I feel I have to protest when ever I can, regardless of company affiliation.

Now Miracle-Gro, one of Scotts companies, has come out with a way to make vegetable gardening easier for those just beginning, or those with very little time.

They have put together a line of (trademarked, of course) what look to be peat capsules which contain a planting medium of some sort (one of their soil mixes, of course) together with a vegetable or herb seed already planted at the correct depth–and at the bottom of the capsule, slow release fertilizer (think Osmocote for vegetables) that will feed the plant all summer.

It’s quite ingenious. For folks who are a little hesitant about starting seeds, or for those who have had bad experiences with seeds in the past, this is the perfect thing. Best of all, the Gro-ables (as they are called) are guaranteed for 6 months, so that if you do have “crop failure” (as I call it when my seeds don’t grow) you can get your money back. What’s not to like?

So far as I can see, these things are sold on-line, in both single vegetable pods and whole salad and herb garden kits. Here’s the link to the site.

The actual site also has a video of how to plant the pods, recipes of how to use the harvest, the requisite FAQ section (including what to do if animals dig up your pod) and more.

The only drawback (other than the fact that these use peat, a non-renewal resource, and of course use non-organic fertilizer–but heck, everyone is not as picky as I am!) for the novice gardener that I foresee is that the video shows that the planted pod should be level with the soil. That leaves a lip of peat above ground. That can actually act as a wick to dry out the entire mass. Time will tell if that proves to be a real problem for the gardener.

Another tiny quibble that I have is that I could not see that the plants were identified by name–other than “Globe tomato” for example. But perhaps not everyone really cares to know the particular variety name of the tomato. I do.

Otherwise, this does appear to be quite an advance in making vegetable gardening from seed much easier.

Veggies Need Flowers and Flowers Need Bees

I received an email from High Country Gardens a week or so ago reminding me that vegetable plants need flowering plants around them to produce vegetables.  This is like preaching to the choir, as they say.

Of course High Country Gardens was trying to sell its lovely selection of pre-planned gardens and herbs.  And I have ordered a few things from them in the past and I can tell you that as a mail order source goes, they are superior.  They sell large-sized, high quality plants, and even though they are coming from the desert southwest, they arrive at my home in the northeast in great condition.

But I don’t have a lot of need for their xeric plants in my more humid climate–in fact, a lot of them won’t survive here because it is too wet (although many of the regular perennials will, of course). 

I remember quite well back in my days in retail gardening many of my customers would come to me an say that their squash or cucumbers were not producing.  I’d ask if they had flowers and they’d say “sometimes,” or “A few.”  Then I’d ask if they had bees.  “Not really.  Not like I used to see.”

So I’d tell them that they needed to attract bees to their yards–and inevitably I’d hear the objections to bees and stinging.  It wasn’t too hard a sell when I was working at the garden center and we were surrounded by flowering plants all day that were covered in big fat bumble bees.  I could walk over to a plant, pick it up, even if it were covered in the bumble bees and say, “Look.  Unless I accidentally grab one of these bees with my hands, they leave me alone.  They don’t care about you.  They want to pollinate these plants.  That’s how you get cucumbers.”

I could also tell them that I’d been working around those bees for 5 years by the time I’d left and I’d never been stung.  That gave me great credibility.

At the big box store it was a little harder to find the bees and make the point.

But it is true nonetheless that you do need flowers to attract the bees to pollinate the plants and get the veggies.  And while bees are not quite as susceptible to pesticides as butterflies are, why are we growing our own veggies if not to eat better than what we can buy at the grocery store?  Keep the chemicals away from the bees and your veggies.  The veggies will taste a lot better and they’ll be a lot better for you–and the bees will thank you too!

Heirloom Seeds

At the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show last month, I was thrilled to be able to find a booth by the Hudson Valley Seed Library.  This is company owned by two men who sell heirloom and open pollinated seeds grown in the New York and Hudson Valley region and suitable for that region.  What does that mean?  That means that if you’re gardening in that part of the country, these seeds are uniquely suitable for you!

Not only that, the seeds are not coming from the big agri-businesses so you should not have to worry about them being contaminated by any sort of GMO seed or any sort of “Round-up ready” seed.  These are seeds grown by local interests in the area.  This is just the sort of business I like to support, and I did buy 3 packets of seeds at the show, including 2 of their lovely art packs.

The art packs feature the works of artists of the region (and then the seeds are separately packaged inside).  You can read more about the three types of seed that this company sells–Art packs, library packs, and garden packs–at the web site link, above.

Another great source for heirlooms and one I’ve also done business with for years is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  They offer 1,400 varieties of open-pollinated seed from their catalog in Mansfield Missouri.

From my perspective, and a little closer to home, I’m thrilled and delighted that the owners of Baker Creek, the Gettle family, have bought Comstock Ferre  & Co. in Wethersfield, CT. Their plan is to offer regional seeds appropriate to New England and they have already sold out of Wethersfield red onion starts for this season, although the seeds are available.

Local readers of this blog should save the weekend of June 5 for the big 200th anniversary celebration over at Comstock Ferre.  I know the Gettles will be having a huge celebration.  Plan to be there!

Finally to read more about heirloom seeds in general, and whether they are “better” than hybrids or not, check out this article that appeared in the New York Times just last Thursday.  I’d drafted this whole post before the article appeared and then they did a 4-page article on heirlooms versus hybrids and which might be better (the verdict: a well-grown backyard vegetable is better than store bought any day of the week.  As for heirloom versus hybrid–well, the debate continues.)  It’s an interesting read, however and gives more sources for seeds, including the organic High Mowing Seeds of Vermont, which I’ve also grown from.

There’s Hope For Our Food Supply Yet

Yesterday I wrote about what I thought our world and food supply would look like when I was a kid:  everything being dispensed by bright shiny vending machines.  Good thing that vision hasn’t come true!

Last Sunday, the New York Times did a short piece about new younger farmers and how they are making a difference in  the Pacific Northwest.  They are even reviving the lost tradition of the Grange!  This is the newer version of what our food supply may look like in the future.

While the article didn’t get into a lot of complicated factors for the resurgence in farming among the younger set, a few had farming in their blood.  Others saw it as a way to ensure the safety of their own–and others–food supply.

I know a friend of mine is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her heritage chicks early this summer.  She’s chosen one of the rarer breeds so the chicks won’t come to her until around June or so.  When they arrive, we’re all going to have a potluck picnic so she doesn’t have to do any work and go over to visit to see them.

I’ve pondered the whole idea of a few backyard chickens myself but have ultimately given up on the idea.  Because I have made my yard so wildlife friendly, I think it would be very chicken un-friendly.  I wouldn’t so much as have to build them a coop; I’d have to build them a fortress.  And that wouldn’t be a lot of fun for them.

And on the day when the wildlife inevitably outsmarted me, I’d be devastated.  So it’s just not worth that heartbreak.  I can’t even keep goldfish in my pond.  I know better than to try to keep expensive koi.  So there will be no chickens–and therefore no farm fresh eggs–for me.

I did belong to the Slow Food USA organization for awhile but believe it or not, the emails were a bit too overwhelming.  I wonder if that’s changed?  I read an article recently by the founder who said that gardeners should consider joining–that cooking and gardening have a lot in common.  He’s right, of course, and I wonder for a lot of folks if they come to growing a few edibles out of their love of cooking?  For me, gardening was definitely first.

And since that is the case,  I’ll soon, I hope, be updating you on my latest project, a raised bed garden that I’ll be planting with vegetables.  I’ll be layering the soil in there “lasagna” style to kill the grass underneath.

And since the kit was donated to me by Greenland Gardener, I’ll be showing you all about the kit and how that works too!  Stay tuned for my edibles project!

Kids Have Scary Ideas of The Future

Or at least I did.  When I was a child, on occasion, we’d go into New York City.  And for a treat, we’d eat at the Automat, run by Horn and Hardart.

We got to reminiscing last night at dinner with friends and all of us remembered the Automat, a place where you inserted coins in machines and food was dispensed to you.  For those who didn’t grow up near one of these marvels, or who haven’t seen the preserved remains in the Smithsonian, here is a link to an article that Smithsonian magazine did about them.

The last Automat closed in the early 1990s but I was surprised to learn that they lasted that long. I would have thought that the “modern” fast food places would have put them out of business long before that.

As a kid, the Automat was the future to me. I thought that one day everybody would eat this way–that food would be dispensed by machines and there would be no need for people to be involved.

Well, little did I know that the Automat was a hugely labor driven industry–you just didn’t see the people.  And frighteningly indeed, today, some folks almost do eat out of vending machines for two meals a day.  Thankfully, I’m not sure anyone really eats out of them for three meals a day!

But perhaps even better, the trend today is away from all that, and toward more fresh food.  While the Automat was a version of “fast” food, it was still prepared behind the scenes and still replaced in those revolving cases on conveyers so it would be fresh.

The food I’m talking about today, however, is more, farm to table fresh, artisanal fresh (if that word isn’t so overdone as to be a cliché) and homegrown fresh.

Thank goodness my childhood dream of automated food didn’t come true!

Seed Starting Like Our Founding Fathers

To finish up the bit of environmental activist kick I’ve been on the last two days, I’ll talk a bit about seed starting.  For the most part, the home gardener doesn’t have to think too hard about this.  He or she goes to his garden center or nursery (or perhaps big box store) of choice, chooses a few seed packets, and we’re off.

I was able to find some organic seeds this year, put out in a line by Burpee, and I didn’t have to mail-order them.  I normally don’t go so far as to worry about whether my seeds are organic but I was buying them for growing micro-greens, something I’d eat when it had only two or 3 sets of tiny leaves, so I tried to get organic seeds when I could.

The commercial farmers have larger issues to worry about–are they going to buy the “Round-up Ready” line of seeds now available and thereby be beholden to the large agricompanies?  Or will they struggle without them?  For the organic farmer, of course, it’s not an issue–unless his neighbor is growing those seeds and possibly contaminating his seed stock.

The New York Times had a fascinating article about seed starting from the pantry.  We probably all remember some variety of this as a child.  Perhaps you sprouted a carrot or potato top, suspended over a cup of water by some toothpicks.  Or maybe it got more exotic–you sprouted an avocado pit (it probably won’t surprise you to know that I did).

I even had a beloved grapefruit tree, grown from a seed that an uncle passed on to me.  It lived for many years until it inexplicably died.  Since the Uncle too was dead and the tree was named in his honor, I felt the loss keenly.

Again, I digress.  In the Times article, the author talks about sprouting all sorts of unusual seeds, nuts and legumes from the kitchen–as well as citrus pits.  He talks about the lentil plant and the color of its flowers (who knew–I confess I did not).  But he also talks about how most of the spices in the spice cabinet–poppy and mustard being the exception–will likely not grow or sprout because they have been heat treated in some manner.  After all, no one wants to find mouldy spices and moisture is the enemy of spices.

Citrus, too, often have seeds that are small or too poorly formed to sprout because we as consumers do not like to find seeds in our fruit (after all, isn’t that why we buy seedless watermelon and navel oranges?)

An expert at the New York Botanic Garden suggested buying fruit from small ethnic markets if seeds for sprouting are desired–they will most likely have varieties that have not been treated, or varieties that do have seeds.

Then, of course, there is always the old-fashioned way of getting good seeds for sprouting–find a good catalog or garden center that stocks them.