Friday, January 30, 2009

A Few Reliable Heirlooms

Although I have had trouble with some heirloom tomatoes in my yard (the ‘Glacier’ that I tried last year, for example, died within a month of planting), a few have been absolutely reliable and productive. The heirloom tomato varieties ‘Rutgers,’ ‘Arkansas Traveler’ and a sub-variety of ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter’ that I purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange have all produced well in my yard.

One problem with trying new heirloom varieties is that they usually aren’t certified as being disease resistant. This makes choosing, and trusting, new-to-me heirloom varieties a bit nerve-wracking; I know there is a (big) chance the plants won’t survive long enough to set fruit.

I could be wrong, but I think that the official testing for such resistance is expensive. For varieties in the public domain, like most heirloom tomatoes, a seed company might not be able to recoup the cost of that testing in sales of seed, since the seeds can be acquired from many suppliers, sometimes even for free from a gardening friend.

That means all the testing is done in our own yards, by gardeners everywhere. Even we, though, can’t officially proclaim that a variety is officially resistant. We can only share the wonderful news that a plant has survived and produced the hoped-for tomatoes.

The fact that some heirloom tomatoes have survived in my yard gives me hope that more reliable heirlooms are out there in the world, but I am still going to start my next new heirloom tomato as a graft, as described in yesterday’s post, just to make sure…

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grafted Tomatoes

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into an idea that was new to me: grafting tomato plants. I had checked a gardening book out from the library (through interlibrary loan), and the chapter on tomatoes had a little section on grafting a non-disease-resistant variety onto the rootstock of a disease-resistant variety as a way to grow more kinds of tomatoes. I immediately thought two things: 1. What a great idea! and 2. I could do that! As you can probably tell by my use of exclamation marks, I am pretty interested in this grafting idea.

I am fairly careful in my yearly selection of tomatoes for growing, making sure that I have several that have demonstrated their ability to produce tomatoes in my yard without keeling over first from one of those wilt diseases—Fusarium Wilt and Verticillium Wilt are both pretty common here in the Southeast, and at least one of those has killed tomato plants in my yard before. These diseases start at the root; they are soil-borne, so having the resistant variety in contact with the soil, according to what I read, keeps the non-resistant variety that has no soil contact safe from those diseases. Since the book I read was published in Great Britain, it was more concerned with corky-root disease and root-knot eelworms (we would call those nematodes), but Fusarium Wilt was also mentioned.

The book did not tell whether production was as high from grafted plants as might be expected from non-grafted plants, but I think this grafting might be worth a try. One of my friends keeps extolling the wonders of the tomato called “Cherokee Purple” (her neighbor grows it on trucked-in soil in a raised bed) but I haven’t tried it yet. Grafting would be a way for me to feel more confident that I would get tomatoes instead of just a dead plant.

I searched around online and found more references to the grafting procedure and its usefulness; one explanation with good diagrams was at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, but I can't seem to make the link work (it turned up as a pdf file in a Google search). Another source, though, was here at the University of Connecticut. This U of C page shows the "tongue approach" that was illustrated in the book. From all the information I read, it seems likely that it will take longer to get grafted plants ready to plant outside than regular seed-grown plants—maybe an additional eight weeks— but I usually plant a second shift of tomatoes, anyway, when the onions come out. If I can get this grafting to work, a couple of grafted plants can be part of the second shift.

The book that I read is Salad Crops All Year Round, by H. G. Witham Fogg, published in 1983 by David and Charles Inc.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Planning for Pollinators

When planning a vegetable garden, it is important to remember to plan for flowers. I’ve been asked more than once why food gardens always seem to include sunflowers, zinnias, and other flowers. It turns out that, in addition to being pretty, flowers attract pollinators to the food garden. Our gardens would produce fewer vegetables without bees, wasps, beetles, and flies.

These insects do the good work of pollinating the flowers of a lot of the plants I want to eat the fruits of: tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and more. However, even though these plants themselves produce flowers that are attractive to pollinators, in order to get really good fruit-set on our plants, sometimes the insects need a little extra incentive to visit our yards. The incentive is those flowers we plant alongside our veggies.

In my yard, I’ve observed that some plants are more crowded with pollinators than others. These are the ones I want to make sure are replanted year after year to bring the insects back to my garden. Besides the usual sunflower (I grow a short variety called Sunspot), these popular-to-insect-pollinator plants include marigolds, coneflowers, anise hyssop, assorted small-flowered herbs like thyme and oregano, and China asters.

In the past, this list also included a native shrub, the silky dogwood that I didn't have to actually replant (less work!), which rapidly became my favorite native shrub when it appeared all on its own in my side yard. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, but it looked like “something good,” so I left it. In the third year, it flowered, and when it did, I think every insect in the neighborhood dropped by for a visit. That shrub had a galaxy of beetles, tiny bees, and flies swirling over it, landing to visit the small flowers, then taking off to swirl over it again.

Unfortunately, when the city needed to do some work on the overpass of the small creek that runs along my yard, they dug up the silky dogwood, which was in their way, and dumped it into a dumpster. When I realized what they had done, I walked out and asked one of the younger guys to climb in and pull some of the black berries off the shrub for me. He did, even though I’m sure he thought I was a slightly crazy old lady. I've sprouted those berries, and now I have eight pots of year-old silky dogwood, and I will probably plant one or two of these this Spring. In another couple of years, maybe the galaxy of insects will return.

As important as knowing what flowers attract insects is knowing which ones don’t. One year, I planted a pretty little plant called Summer Snapdragon. When it didn’t have insect visitors in the Spring, I thought that maybe its pollinator appeared in the Summer, but I checked that plant every time I went out and it Never had any insect on its flowers, even though there were always LOTS of flowers. I’ve never seen anything like the insect desert that this plant turned out to be. Although this Summer Snapdragon would be a good flower to grow for people who are allergic to bee stings, it didn’t turn out to be useful for attracting pollinators to my garden.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lettuce Dream

I’m hoping for more lettuce this year, both earlier and later, and I’ve taken steps to make my dream come true. For lettuce further into the summer, I’ve ordered seeds of an old lettuce called SloBolt, that is supposed to be, as if we couldn’t guess from its name, slow to bolt in warm weather. It is also supposed to not get bitter even when it does finally bolt. I’ve been gardening long enough to not take the claim as 100% gospel truth, but I have hopes of extending my lettuce season a bit further into warm weather.

I’ve learned to watch the weather pretty closely, and, in the past, when the forecast has called for a few days in a row of temperatures in the low to mid eighties, I would go out and cut all the remaining lettuces and cram them into the fridge. We would then eat salad for just about every meal until it was gone.

Leaving most lettuces out in the heat causes them to get bitter and to bolt, which is why I cram the fridge full of lettuce at some point every May, but last year’s trial of Bronze Arrow, a red oak-leaf lettuce, let me get one more week of non-bitter lettuce from the yard. This year, I expect to still have a bit of a binge-week when the weather gets consistently warm, but I will leave the SloBolt out in the garden longer, and see how it does.

For getting more lettuce in cool weather, we (my husband, actually) are building a little cold-frame, to be covered with clear plastic, out of PVC. I’ve seen these on other people’s websites and blogs, and they seem to work as season extenders, so I am going to give it a try. We bought enough PVC for a small frame, about 3x6x2 (WxLxH) feet in dimension.

This means that I will get to start gardening sooner than usual, and that we may (if it actually works in my yard) get to eat lettuce about a month sooner than usual. Of course, we spent $31 on supplies, which is more than we would pay for a month’s worth of lettuce, but the frame should be usable for many seasons, even extending our harvest into --and possibly through-- winter.


We don’t get a lot of snow most years, and I don’t expect to get a lot of snow today, but it is, as I type, actually snowing outside. My husband and youngest son are out enjoying it; one has gone to the woodpile to get firewood, and one is walking the dog. Meanwhile, Spot, the cat, is sitting on the back deck looking a bit angry, but he looks that way a lot of the time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

These are the Times that Try [Gardeners'] Souls

Well, the soul-trying is a bit of an exaggeration (and I owe a Huge apology to Thomas Paine, I know), but January and February can be tough months for a gardener. There is no rebelling against the weather, unless a gardener is in happy possession of a greenhouse, and I am out of luck in that department. I’ve ordered seeds and made a plan, and now I have to wait. At the end of February, when we usually have a few days of spring-like weather before the temperatures drop again, I can get the garden ready for the first plantings of the year—potatoes, peas, and onions. Until then, we are eating up what we saved from the harvests of 2008 and just waiting…

The good news is that we’ve had an additional two inches of rain since my last report—the ground in my yard is actually SQUISHY. Some good news/bad news is that we are about to have some very cold weather, with temperatures down into the lower teens. We don’t get this level of cold every year, and the Atlanta area in general is not usually prepared for it, since even when it comes, it is brief. The daffodil buds that have pushed up above the soil, though, are still tightly wrapped and should be fine. The flowers of my Camelia japonica won’t fair so well, but there are plenty of buds on the shrub to open out more opulent, pink flowers when the crisis of cold has passed.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Getting the Lead Out

My youngest son gave me a campaign-style pin for Christmas that says “Turn your lawn into a garden.” The pin has prompted some interesting conversations while I’ve been out. It turns out that plenty of people plan to do exactly what the pin says. However, a couple of these people live in older homes and should probably consider learning more about possible lead contamination in their soil before planning their food gardens.

Older homes that have been painted, scraped, repainted, scraped, repainted, etc, for years and years may have had old lead-based paint chips dropped into the soil around their foundations. While it is possible that any contamination would be at a low level, it is also possible that the level is high.

For example, one year one of my sisters was looking for a house to buy in Tulsa, OK, and she found a really cute older home that she was interested in, but her children were young and she was concerned about the possibility of lead contamination around the house. I think the pipes were her main concern, but it turned out that the soil around the house’s foundation was contaminated with lead.

This sounds bad, but the recommendation that came back with the test results was that the soil within only 2 feet of the house—since lead does not migrate through the soil to more distant locations—be dug up and removed, with fresh soil brought in to replace it. Without this precaution, the risk of her children’s being affected by lead poisoning was unacceptably high, because, one way or another, children eat dirt.

However, even without removing this soil, my sister could have grown veggies in that yard, following guidelines in this article from the University of Rhode Island Landscape Horticulture Program which explains ways to limit the risk of ingesting lead through home-grown produce when soils are known to be contaminated. Although one obvious method is to wash fruits and vegetables really well, the article explains,

“Gardeners can use several methods to reduce the risk of lead poisoning from lead contaminated soils. Fruit and vegetable gardens should be located away from old painted buildings, heavy traffic and sites where sludge with heavy metals was applied. Vegetables and fruits can accumulate lead in their leafy green tissues, although lead accumulation will be lower in fruits. In high-risk lead areas, grow crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash, melons and cucumbers rather than leafy greens such as lettuce, chard, collards or spinach. Crops such as carrots, radishes, turnips, onions and potatoes can accumulate lead and should not be planted in heavily contaminated soils.”

The article emphasizes the importance of keeping contaminated soils out of the home, on foods but also on the gardener’s person, by washing up and using mulches to reduce dust exposure. I expect that keeping yard-shoes outside (to avoid tracking in contaminated soil) would also help.

Anyone concerned about possible contamination of their soil should read the whole article and then consider having their soil tested before growing food in the yard. However, this article and others I’ve read on the same topic are reassuring about the ability of most yards, with proper precautions, to produce good, safe food.

More Rain

Last week, after a couple of days of on-and-off drizzle and light rain, I checked the rain-gage; it was showing 5/8 of an inch of rain. Since we have been in a drought, seemingly forever, I was really happy about that little bit of rain. Well, it rained again last night, and when I checked the gage this morning it showed 2 and 1/2 inches. I am not going to go all dreamy about a return to fully hydrated soil or anything like that, but. . . Hallelujah!
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