Monday, January 28, 2013

Will I Be Growing GMO Seeds This Year?

There is a lot of confusion about the availability of Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds for use in home gardens. The source for some of that is a misunderstanding of what hybrid seeds are as compared to GMO seeds.

In hybrid seeds, the patented genetics are a result of crosses created by moving pollen from one variety of a particular species of a plant to the stigma (female part) of a different variety of the same kind of plant. For example, the pollen from a disease resistant tomato plant might be placed on the female flower parts of another kind of tomato that has better flavor, resulting in seeds that reliably become disease resistant plants that make tasty tomatoes. This is a controlled version of something that could actually happen in nature.

In genetically modified seeds, bits of DNA from one kind of organism are spliced into DNA of another completely different kind of organism. For example, a bit of bacterial DNA might be added to the DNA of corn, with the goal of managing a persistent problem with corn ear worms in a way that requires a lot less pesticide than usual.

Since the process for development and production of the GMO seeds is costly, the companies that make these seeds have placed all kinds of restrictions on how they are sold and managed. Farmers who want to grow these seeds have to sign great piles of paperwork and promise to not save seeds to grow for next year's crop. I have a hard time imagining that this level of control is going to be feasible in the market of home gardeners. We tend to be a little unruly and to not always follow instructions!

However, we could end up growing GMO crops by accident. Several seed companies that sell to the gardening public have taken a "safe seed pledge," and they are testing their seed for inclusion of GMO contamination. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds reports (in its 2013 catalogue) that it has found GMO contamination in some batches of garden crop seed (that it then rejected).

Technically, it probably would be illegal to grow that seed, even if the genetically engineered parts were there accidentally and unknowingly, because those special genetic combinations are owned by the corporations that developed them.

Any gardener looking to avoid growing GMO crops should probably buy the most-likely-to-be-affected seeds from a company that is testing seeds specifically for that accidental contamination. I've been looking for a comprehensive list of GMO crops currently being grown and haven't found one, but I do know that the list includes corn, soybeans, beets, zucchini, potatoes, rice, wheat, eggplants, canola, cotton, alfalfa, plums and papayas (not really row-crops), and probably more.

Many of these are not being grown in people's yards, but gardeners sometimes grow some pretty odd things. I , for one, have grown both rice and wheat, just for the experience, and alfalfa is sometimes used as a long-term cover crop.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Garden Update

Last week we had a series of wet days that resulted in our getting about 4 inches of rain. I am hoping that the deeper soils are benefiting from all that moisture! This week, though, we were supposed to have actual winter - with overnight lows in the low twenties.

On Monday, having seen the forecast, I spent a little time getting the garden ready. There is second a patch of broccoli that was planted very late, and the plants never did get very large, but they all finally developed little heads of florets on top. Temperatures in the low twenties likely would have damaged the little heads, so I harvested them. I didn't want to lose the good food, even though it wasn't much. If these plants had been purchased only for food, this would have been a total bust in terms of payback, but these plants were used in a demonstration about raised bed gardening, so I'm not especially unhappy with the outcome. The plants were dual-purpose! Even better, the little harvest provided some very tasty broccoli for last night's stir-fry.

We've been getting fairly continuous harvests of side-shoots from the earlier-planted broccoli, but on Monday I pulled that all up. Over time, the flavor of the little shoots on these older plants had declined, becoming less sweet and more sulfur-y (not a word, I know). Since outstanding flavor from food in the garden is important, deciding to pull the plants up wasn't hard.

I also harvested the last of the cabbage. There were six small-ish heads all in good shape, and two that should have been harvested a week or two back. The outer leaves on those two had gone brown and a little slimy.

Sometimes, it can be hard to know when to harvest a crop -- the inclination is to leave it out in the garden just a little longer, so the plants can develop just a little more -- and I certainly fell into that trap with regard to the cabbage this year.
However, we only lost two cabbages. The rest are now either in "cold storage" (in the garage) or in the big fermenting jar becoming sauerkraut.

The only plants I covered up in advance of the forecast cold are the beets. I really like the tops for greens, and I didn't want them to turn mushy/slimy in the lower temperatures.

The garlic is growing well, and it didn't need any cold protection. The shallots and multiplier onions are also up and cheerily green, and a later planting of carrots, the winter radishes, some spinach and a bit of lettuce (that's started to turn bitter), one plant of Swiss chard, one plant of Kale, and an interesting assortment of weeds are all still providing variety in the meals of ourselves and of my bunnies. I'm not especially keen on bitter lettuce, but Moonpie and her babies love it!

As it turned out, the forecast actual winter failed to arrive. If the lack-of-really-cold-weather keeps up, we all will need to brace ourselves for another buggy and disease-filled gardening year.

Meanwhile, indoors, I am planning for spring.  I've been putting seed orders together, and the orders include what seems like a crazy number of packets for such a small gardening space, but when I look back over the lists of everything I've harvested  in the past year the numbers seem more reasonable.

I'm also planning a seed-starting talk that will be given in February, and I am making decisions about varieties to bring to that talk, too (there will be a hands-on activity for people who show up). Have I mentioned lately that I love my job? It lets me think about gardening and plants pretty much all the time!

Like last year, the daffodils have decided to herald the beginning of spring in January. I do enjoy the sunny flowers, but it's a bit discombobulating to see them so near bloom so early in the year.

They aren't alone in acting as though we are nearing February's end rather than January's end. Leaves of the Spanish bluebells are several inches high, and one of my hardy amaryllis has pushed leaves up into the air, too. Looks like we could have another very interesting gardening year!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tomato Varieties Update

Since it's time to think about what to grow this year, I spent part of one evening this week going through my seeds, tossing the oldest packets and noting what I needed to find more of for this year's garden. I am still waiting on the Last Seed Catalogue, the one from my favorite seed source - Sand Hill Preservation Center - before submitting any seed orders, but I have just about worked out what I want to plant. When I have the varieties all chosen, I'll post those, but this post is about Tomatoes.

In April of 2010, I wrote a post that listed most of the tomato varieties I had tried in my garden, along with a note about each variety's relative success in my yard. Going through my stash of seeds reminded me that I should probably update the list.

These are the tomato varieties for which I found seed packets (some of which were empty) and that I have grown two or more plants of since the last tomato variety update:

Akers Plum - Large paste-type tomato that produced well and remained healthy in my yard.
Wuhib - My favorite paste/plum tomato. Amazing productivity and disease resistance.
Old Ferry Morse Beefsteak - Good flavor, reasonable productivity (only grown one year so far). Will grow it again this year to verify its hardiness.
Jaune Flammee - Orange-red tomato, medium size, not super productive in my yard, and its flavor, though pretty good, didn't beat the flavor of some of my favorites.
Yellow Out Red In - An heirloom long-keeper, but I liked Burpee's Winter Red Hybrid better.
Burpee's Long Keeper - Its name says it all, but I liked Burpee's Winter Red Hybrid better.
Burpee's Winter Red Hybrid - The one I will continue to include in my last planting of tomatoes in June, to provide tomatoes into November and beyond.
Rutgers - Reliable, productive, and good to eat.
Costoluto Genovese - I tried a packet from Cook's Garden, and it wasn't like the original I had tried many years ago. It may be that the entire strain has changed, but I might try to find yet another packet from another source..
Cherokee Purple - The seeds I got from Fedco weren't quite as hardy in my garden as seeds I had used previously (from Sand Hill Preservation, I think). I'm going to go back to a different (non-Maine) supplier.
Olivette Jaune - A cherry-sized, yellow, plum-looking tomato. Very tasty, but the plants don't survive beyond the end of August in my yard. I will probably be trying a different cherry-type this year. There are so many from which to choose!
Red Chinese - Died in my yard.
Yellow marble - A tart, yellow, cherry tomato. Hardy and productive, but I think I'm going to look for something a little sweeter to try. One very good thing about the yellow varieties is that the color confuses some potential competitors for the fruits - birds and children both seem to be looking for that red ripeness indicator!
Amish - These are seeds I saved, from plants given to me by a tomato-growing friend in Kennesaw. He has saved seeds for this variety for more than thirty years. The tomatoes are yellow with red swirls; they are large, meaty, and delicious, but they are not very productive. However, I will be growing them every year for the foreseeable future. Did I mention the amazing flavor?


Friday, January 4, 2013

Tracking the Harvest: December 2012

In spite of the shortened days and colder weather of early winter, the garden continues to do just fine. My yard's December havest total was13.25 kg, which converts to 29 pounds, 3.4 oz.
The grand total harvested weight (for what I remembered to weigh) of food from the yard for 2012 was 199.4 kg., which converts to 439 pounds, 9 oz.

Here is the breakdown, in kilograms, for what was harvested in the final month of the year:

Bok Choy
Radish, winter
Persimmons, Asian
beets plus greens

I'm always a little conflicted about using weight as a benchmark for gardening success, since there is so much more to celebrate about good food than how much it weighs. Some crops that don't add much to the weight total at all, considering the large space they occupy, are totally worth growing because of their amazing flavor. Raspberries are among the low-yielding, highly-treasured space-hogs in my yard.

Popcorn is another crop that produces relatively little in terms of pounds per square foot of crop, but I think it's totally worth growing in my garden. If all my crops had that same characteristic of low yield in terms of final, harvested weight, I'd still think my garden was a big success.

Also, if I met a local gardener who'd managed to bring in a great crop of celery, regardless of what else was grown or how much it all weighed, I would count that as a huge success!

My current variety of Bok Choy produces plenty per square foot. The plant (harvested yesterday) in the photo at the top of this post weighed 1.5 kg., which is almost too much for us to eat before it wilts. Some of this plant ended up in the freezer, but bok choy freezes less-well than some other greens.

Next year, I'm thinking about changing to a variety that stays more consistently smaller. That could bring the total harvested weight down, but the amount of food harvested at one time would be more appropriate for my family's use. 

I think that my point (if there is one) is that determining what-constitutes-success for an individual gardener can be a little complex. As we start a New Gardening Year, I hope that all of us gardeners are as successful as we hope to be, in the multiple ways that we measure success!

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