Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Say "yes" to gardening

School is just around the corner. It harkens  the end of summer and beginning of Autumn. I love this weather and this time of the year but for children heading back to school; it is filled with apprehension.
I read somewhere that one in ten children is bullied.  It could be more or less depending on the source.
For children who are bullied, school is no longer a place of learning.  Studies have shown that gardening has a therapeutic effect for those who bully others and those who are bullied. Incorporating a curriculum that include gardening can be one of many ways a school can make a difference. And bullying is occurring in affluent communities as well as poor communities.

Hopefully, the programs that are in already place will inspire one more child to love gardening.

Say "yes" to gardening





Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Grafted Tomatoes

San Marzanos as of 24 August

Mighty ‘Mato sent me three grafted tomato plants to trial this summer – a grafted Homestead 24, a grafted Heatwave II and a grafted Costoluto Genovese. Grafted plants of any kind are basically one plant’s upper portion spliced into a root stock from a different type.  The objectives are several, but two that many gardeners struggling with tomato production this year will appreciate are improved disease resistance, (the primary objective of grafting), and increased productivity, (often a secondary benefit).  

"The root stock is about 4-5 times the size of regular tomato root stock," says John Bagnasco, President of GardenLife in California. "Because of that, it wants to push a lot of vigor into the top part of the plant."

Grafting has been with us for millenniums – fruit trees and roses are the things we usually think of in connection with grafting – but several years ago, vegetable and seed companies began to graft vegetable plants. I’ve been curious about them, so was really tickled to get three plants from GardenLife to trial.

"We like to do testing all over the country,"  says Bagnasco. "The three we sent you were supposed to be heat tolerant, and the Heatwave and Costuluto were also Humidity tolerant."
Unfortunately, that wasn't my experience with these plants.

"This year we sold a million grafts – and we have had mixed results around the country," says Bagnasco, "but 80% of the people who contact us are ecstatic. The Mid-West especially has had problems, and another problem is that people are still burying the graft [when they plant], and when you do that, it ruins the tomato."

The instructions are clear about making sure the graft is well above the soil surface, so I was careful (and have planted grafted fruit trees before). I put the Costoluto and the Heatwave – on the south side of the garden in a spot that was all but fallow last year. I had planted beans there early last year, but once they were done, had covered the spot with straw. I was hoping the ground would be a good spot for them, but not so much. Those two plants have suffered terribly from early blight, fungus, splitting, rot and critter attacks even though I’ve feed them with organic food (Bagnasco says water-soluable fertilizer does not do well "Organic is the way to grow them"), tended them, clipped off the early blight. I didn't prune them, something Bagnasco says produces a healthier plant with better production.  Both plants set a lot of fruit, but offered little that was good enough to eat. I'm about to yank them out when I get a minute or two in the next few days.
Grafted Costoluto Genovese on left, Heatwave II on right

The third grafted plant, the Homestead tomato, I stuck in the middle of a short line of Supersauce, and San Marzano, and it’s doing better, (though many of my tomato plants are suffering from blight or something right now). Lemon peppers were in that bed last year, but I put in tomatoes anyhow. I break the ‘rules’ by planting Solanacea family members in the same spots year after year, because I have so many tomato and pepper plants and only so much space. Sometimes it works, sometimes you can tell it was a bad idea. It seems to have as much to do with weather and sunshine and air as it does with what’s in the soil. I try to interplant almost everything in the garden with other things – herbs pollinator favorites, a bean plant or two maybe, some lettuce, radish, whatever, to keep things lively in hopes of creating a balanced ecology in the garden. Sorta works.
Grafted tom's right background,  Supersauce on left

This grafted Homestead bracketed with Supersauce and San Marzano had a tough time earlier, but has squared itself away pretty much and is giving us a nice amount of slicing tomatoes. So is it the plants? The soil? Air flow? (which should be the same for all three plants). The variety? I don’t know, though I do think the soil is partly to blame.The tomato plants on the left in the photo at left were started at the same time as all the others, but were planted a full month later, which may explain their current health (though I can see trouble starting down at the bottom).

 The photos on the Mighty ‘Mato site of their grafted plants are impressive, and taken, Bagnasco says, in their trial garden in Oregon, not exactly your best tomato-producing region. And I’m very aware of the wide range of tomato experiences people have been having this year, even people as close in geographic proximity as Sabine Harvey’s garden and mine (same county 12 miles apart). Has anyone else tried grafted vegetable plants? If so, what's been your experience, please?

Bagnasco says they graft a wide range of fruit and vegetable plants, and says that grafted watermelon is a particularly impressive producer as compared the non-grafted. I hoping to get a chance to try to grow one next year. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned some new varieties of tomatoes being developed from a species that was brought back from Galapagos that sound fascinating (delicious -- it's all about the eating for me). Apparently 60 Minutes thinks they sound fascinating too; they're going to feature them with other new phytonutrient plants in a segment this fall.  Never dull.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Look at 'Iron Lady' Tomato

A few GIEI bloggers and gardeners have commented on 'Iron Lady' F1 Hybrid released this year by Cornell University (in partnership with North Carolina State University), and sold through High Mowing Seeds. This cultivar is a big step forward in the battle against tomato diseases. It has resistance to late blight, Septoria leaf spot, Fusarium wilt, and Verticillium wilt, AND tolerance to early blight.

I grew four plants at the Home and Garden Information Center and one at home. It's a determinate cultivar that makes vigorous top growth and sets fruit in tight clusters over a relatively long period. I did not keep track of planting and harvesting dates. The description claims 75 days to maturity (from transplanting). It seemed slow to ripen but produced  nice firm, smooth fruits (4-6 ounces).


There was a lot of Septoria leaf spot in home gardens this year and 'Iron Lady' came through unscathed. We did have some minor early blight infection (see photo above) that did not affect growth, fruit cover, or yield.

Sure, there are tomatoes with better texture and flavor but this level of disease resistance is unmatched! Can't wait to test the other hybrids coming out of this breeding program.

Friday, August 23, 2013

No, Google, not rice with beans

One of the crops I tried for the first time this year was white rice beans.  I got the seed as part of our community garden seed-saving project (it was sent to us free from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds) and tried it out at the demo garden.  This week was harvest time, as nearly all of the bean pods had dried (those that hadn't went into the harvest as fresh beans.  All the plants had to go; we need the space).

There are other plants called rice beans that produce reddish seeds and are an Asian species, Vigna umbellata.  The ones I grew are part of the common bean species Phaseolus vulgaris, of South/Central American origin, and produce white seeds.  Here's what they look like when shelled:

And with a quarter for size context:

They are tiny!  About the size of a grain of rice (maybe a little bigger), which is one reason for the name.  And they take a very long time to shell.  (Thank goodness for Netflix, is all I can say.)  Here are the empty pods, ready to be composted:

That's a large mixing bowl full of pods, which after hours of work resulted in about a cup and a half of shelled beans.  Of which I've already cooked a half cup; the rest I'll share with other gardeners either as food or as seed for next year.

So how to cook them?  It's tricky finding recipes on the web, because a) they are not a common ingredient, and b) try googling "white rice bean recipes."  All you get are recipes for beans and white rice.  Which might be okay, since everything I've read about rice beans says that they are good with rice (the other reason for their name).  I decided I'd try a chilled salad with chopped peppers and steamed filet beans instead:

I did find one reference to cooking rice beans, which indicated that, like lentils, they didn't need to be soaked ahead of time.  They do take a little longer than lentils (I'd say 30-40 minutes), but cook relatively fast because of their size.  Flavor is nice but not exciting; they do need seasoning to make an impression.

So, I will probably grow these again, and pass the seed on to other people, but maybe next time I'll try to trick someone else into shelling them.  Or make a party out of it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tomato tasting

We had our tomato tasting at the Derwood Demo Garden yesterday, with tomatoes both from the garden and from MGs' home gardens (we had 25 kinds, in the end).  All kudos to my partner in crime vegetables, Robin Ritterhoff, for getting this organized.

Here's part of our selection before we got around to cutting them.  (I think a few of these are mislabeled, but that will happen.)  I was too busy doing the slicing later (next time we'll remember to bring at least two cutting boards and knives) to take any good photos, but I did capture this Siamese Twin Violet Jasper:

I love when plants do unpredictable things like grow fruits that attach to each other.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun and we got tomato juice everywhere, and in fact we had a bonus Golden Midget watermelon to eat as well, so all very sticky and delicious.  I'm glad to say that most people agreed with my assessment of Orange Icicle and also enjoyed Mortgage Lifter, which I will give you a shot of cut up just to make your mouths water:

Matt's Wild Cherry, Sun Gold, San Marzano and Goji Faranjii also got high marks, not that it was a contest or that anyone was taking more than casual notes.  We did all agree that tomatoes are on the watery side this year, and some that normally have much more flavor were muted in taste.  But it's great fun to get together and compare!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Some quick tomato notes

Here's my 2013 Tomato Experience so far, with the caveat that I'm only growing one or two plants of each variety, and anything can happen to one or two plants, so it's far from a proper trial.  I think I can summarize with: early blight like wow, but still not a bad harvest.

If I'd known about the perfect conditions for early blight ahead of time, I would have sprayed with copper fungicide (I usually don't bother). But of course the point of weather is that you don't know about it ahead of time.  It's been a lovely summer otherwise.

New find of the year: Orange Icicle.  You can see a couple of these elongated orange fruits in the photo.  I've got one plant in the community garden and one at the demo garden; they're both surviving and producing regularly; the fruits are thick-walled and sweet, and would probably make decent sauce if I had more plants, but they make such good fresh eating I don't know if I'd bother, even for orange pasta sauce.

My other sweet orange tomato is the ever-delicious Sun Gold cherry, whose only fault is splitting.  I mean, with the rains we've been having, sometimes I go to pick and they are ALL split, which means a lot of stuffing orangey goodness into my mouth in the middle of the garden, but not much left for the salads.

The other cherry I'm growing doesn't have a name; I call it Janet's Cherry after the MG friend who gave me the seeds.  If you've been to a MoCo MG talk on seed saving, you may have a little packet of these seeds too.  They're pretty standard red cherries with a good average taste, but the best thing about them is that unlike Sun Gold they hardly ever split, and yet aren't unpleasantly thick-walled.  I'll be saving seeds from these and passing them on.

Mortgage Lifter (top of the photo) has been a reliable heirloom for me this year.  Average production and great taste.  My other large-size tomato is Abruzzo (my husband brought seeds for this home from Italy last year); it's been very slow to ripen and now the stink bugs are getting to the fruits.  I don't have a lot of stink bugs in my community garden plot, but half of the ones I've seen seem to be on these tomatoes, even when they are just starting to blush (which is when I pick my tomatoes now).

I was given two plants of Iron Lady, a Cornell development supposed to be highly disease-resistant.  As you can see by the photo, it's far from completely resistant to early blight, though both plants in their separate gardens held out longer than their neighbors.  It's a determinate plant, so growth stopped at about the same time disease hit.  Fruit has been very slow to ripen, and tastes only average when it does.

Other disappointments include Big Mama (though this sauce tomato works well for everyone else, so probably I just had an unlucky plant) and Tropic VFN, which is also supposed to be disease resistant and isn't, in either of my gardens, plus grew at half the rate of plants around it.  Supersauce is dying but produced lovely large elongated fruits for a while; Pompeii at the demo garden looks healthy and productive but I haven't had a chance to taste it yet.

Speckled (aka Striped) Roman (striped fruits in the middle of the above photo) is still reliable and pretty, though I've seen more scars and catfacing on the fruits this year. Violet Jasper (at the demo garden) is also successful and lovely-looking.

And that's all I can recall at the moment, but tomorrow we are having a tomato tasting at the demo garden workday, so I'll take some photos and provide an update on what I liked.  Please share about the tomatoes that have done best (and worst) for you this year, in the comments!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Vegetable philanthropy at a community garden

The South Germantown Recreational Park Community Garden has been a lovely place to grow food this summer - okay, we've had some bugs (I'm popping over later today to drown some Japanese beetles, brown marmorated stink bugs, and Mexican bean beetles) and more than our share of fungal diseases and viruses, but we've barely had to water, and most of the gardeners have kept up with the rampant weeds pretty well.  And there's lots of produce to harvest, enough that many of us have extra to pass on.

Therefore, garden leaders Chris and Latoya decided it was time to have a produce drive to benefit Montgomery County's Manna Food Center.  This past Sunday morning, they set up a donation table and invited all gardeners to stop by and contribute.

Some of the many beautiful vegetables donated
Later, they dropped the produce off at the Clarksburg farmer's market, one of several markets to which Manna sends a truck each week (they also accept produce donations at their main warehouse Monday-Friday).

The produce drive (which we hope to have more of) is part of this year's seed-saving program at Germantown.  Several companies donated seeds and seed-saving supplies to the garden, and our job is to pay that back by saving and exchanging seeds among ourselves, and contributing to the community.

If you grow in a community garden, or in your own backyard, and have more produce than you can use, contact your local food banks and soup kitchens to see if they can use fresh vegetables.  (Many have no storage space, so can only take very small donations if any.)  Don't let good food go to waste when it can benefit someone else!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Deep Into Tomatoes

Supersauce Tomato in hand, 3 big Mamas on right
 Yes, it’s been a hard season so far. Lotsa water has encouraged fungal diseases and blight among other things. But it seems churlish to complain since we’re often faced with drought, so given a choice, I’ll take this summer over a lot of others we’ve gardened through.

Even though it’s been difficult, I’ve got a semi-steady supply of tomatoes coming in to deal with. More paste varieties than slicers, which was a conscious choice when I started my seeds. I love fresh tomatoes, but I count on having a bunch in jars in the larder for winter. In addition to plain canned tomatoes, which go into casseroles and soups, I make salsa, spaghetti sauce, and spicy tomato bullion for a brothy winter pick-me-up.
Supersauce sliced upper left; Big Mamas sliced for roasting
Roasted paste tomatoes for snacks on toast with goat cheese
I’ve always planted Big Mama paste tomatoes since discovering that variety a decade or more ago (hard to tell, life flies by so fast; it might even have been two decades ago). They are reliable producers, even when hit with early blight, and are a dream to work with in the kitchen, whether it’s stuffing them peeled, halved and raw into a canning jar or peeling and rough-chopping them for sauce, bullion or salsa. This year, I tried a new paste variety, ‘Supersauce’ touted as the largest paste tomato ever. I believe it now that I’ve seen it. They are HUGE. And meaty. Even more so than Big Mamas. Interestingly, though, the plants do not seem to be as hardy as the Big Mamas, and they don’t seem to produce as many fruits. (I expect the hybridizers will improve on them as the years go by). Additionally, they are a little tricky to handle when everything's wet and juicy, as it is when you're peeling and chopping. The Supersauce are large enough that I sometimes lose my grip on them; it's like trying to holding onto a wet bar of soap. Some days, I could probably be on America's Funniest Home Videos if there were anyone around with a camera in hand. 

 On the upside, Supersauces are delicious and even more meaty than Big Mamas, and once peeled, make great everything, including tomato juice. Canning tomatoes, no matter what you're making, always produces juice. To keep the jarred tomatoes or sauce from being too running, I put peeled the chopped tomatoes into a bowl, then before putting them raw into sterilized jars, or throwing them into the confiture, a big French kettle designed for making jam in which I make salsa and sauce, I squeeze the fresh juice from them into a bowl. The juice goes into a second pot and is simmer with veggies --a little cabbage, a carrot, sweet pepper, slice of beet, garlic, onion, celery leaves, maybe a hot pepper, and whatever other veg comes to hand [it doesn’t take much]. When the veggies are all limp and they've rendered their goodness intot he tomato juice, I strain it, pour it into sterilized jars and process that. It's all work, but it's also very satisfying. Especially in the dead of winter.
Salsa in confiture/juice in back right pot

Roasted Tomatoes for Snacks:

Sliced tomatoes about 1/4 inch thick and lay on a baking sheet with sides so the juice doesn't run onto the oven. Sprinkle with a little salt, a little olive oil and dot with some fresh garlic then roast in a slow over for about 2 1/2 hours. Cool. Layer in a container. Sprinkle each layer as you go with a little white wine vinegar or white balsamic, cover and keep in the frig for a week or more. For lunch or supper (or a great filling snack) spread a little goat cheese on some toast, lay a few roasted tomatoes on top, hit it with a little grind of black pepper. As Homer Simpson would say: Ummmmmm!