February 13, 2018

Chemicals - The Good, the Bad, and Why You'll Want To Start Your Own Vegetable Seedlings

Happy Valentines Day - which reminds me that our hearts should be focused on healthy vegetable gardening - why not consider growing our own from seed this year? Here is a pretty good reason why you might want to bother growing your own seedlings this year.

Tell me if this has ever happened to you. You decide to start your own tomatoes or peppers at home. You take time finding the perfect variety, you sow your seeds at the right time - not too early nor too late. You take all of the precautions needed.
You set up a lighting unit.
You buy a plant timer.
You use a propagtion mat.
You use the best organic potting soil.
You monitor temperatures closely and even fertilize with a good organic fish emulsion.

Then, Just as the warmer spring weather arrives ...it happens.

You see some sixpacks of the same variety at your local Home Depot and they look million times better than your own plants.

Not able to help yourself, you them and begin to think "Why did I bother?"

All's OK, right? I mean, it was fun to try growing them anyway, right?

Yet here's the problem.  Those plants from the garden center that look infinitely healthier than your skimpy seedlings are more like Russian Olympians drenched steroids.


These snapdragon and pepper seedlings in my greenhouse are being grown the old-fashioned way, Allowed to dry out between watering which helps their roots grow stronger and reduces the risk of mildew, and they have not been treated with any growth regulators so common with both of these crops elsewhere.

No some of you might be thinking "well, I'm OK with that. I get that these plants were probably coddled better than mine, that they were fed some special secret diet and offered life in a fancy greenhouse and all....". But no. That's not what happened.

It's notbecause the growers had access to better seed or better varieties than you could get. T

The answer is a a little more disturbing, and its one which few people are aware about.  You've been seduced by healthy looking tomato plants because they've been treated with PGR's, or Plant Growth Regulators - chemicals that offer no benefit to the plant other than to make them appear stocky and thus look healthier.

These pepper seedlings are not a bushy and thick-stemmed as those found at the nursery, but I know that they havent been treated with growth regulators, and will soon be loaded with naturally induced flowers and fruit. I dont care if they need staking, I dont really want to eat any more chemicals.

Are these plants healthier (or less healthier) than those you can raise at home? No one is really all that sure yet.  At least I think that this is the case after researching more for my book on vegetables and discovering that most every corporate seed supplier offers guidelines on how to apply growth regulators  (not just on petunias, snapdragons and annual flowers as I had once thought) but for use on vegetable seedlings.

That bothers me to no end, and why doesnt anyone seem to know this?

Now you know me. I am not one who typically raises red flags especially about things like GMO's or any horticultural practice which seems to be under scrutiny today. Heck, I'm not even that innocent myself.  Like many horticulturists, I support the use of some insecticides and even responsible use of neonicotinoids.  I have a greenhouse.  I get it.

Yet, I would never use any of these on crops which I am going to eat. That just doesnt seem safe at all. Right?

The guys at http://arborjet.comArbor Jet came out and treated out Hemlock trees with some serious insecticide, but in a most interesting way - injection. While not thrilled about using a neonicotinoid, I am smart enough to know when it is useful. I use them in the greenhouse only as a worst case scenario - scale on a rare tree or something like that. Injection with trees beats how this used to be treates 10 years ago - by spray and drench. This is specific and localized chemotherapy. And, the US Park Service used them too. Thanks ArborJet.

I had to struggle a bit this autumn as we had to make a big decision about a grove of Eastern HEmlock trees on our property. They've been suffering from an infestation of the Wolly Adelgid, with nearly every needle affected.  They look like mealy bugs and the trees were scheduled to be cut down this comng spring, but I wanted to try one more thing. Injection.

The scary part was that the injection would include Imidacloprid. More about that in a later post but mind you, this wasnt easy to accept, but, with some research as guidanve by tree surgeons and those in the industry, I accepted that this was like chemo. On a warmish day in Novemberm our trees were injected with the pale pink fluid. A last-ditch effort to save 10 trees over 100 years old just to fight an attack of the Wooly Adelgid. It seemed worth the risk for a number of reasons, but since it had no contact with soil, and there appeared that there wouldnt be an irruption of winter finches (which woudl feed on the cones, yet again, there havent been any cone crops for about 5 years now), we decided to do it.

Our Eastern Hemlocks, which sit in a grove which has been there since 1900 sits just north, behind our greenhouse. The branches even hang over parts of the greenhouse which is disconcerting as well. After an exceptionally cold winter last year and a very wet summer, the adelgid population seems compromised a bit and some new growth on the branch tips encouraged us to try one last ditch effort to save these trees which were about to be cut down.

It was fascinating to watch the liquid be taken up into the trunk in just 30 mintues.  Imidacloprid is deadly for insects, less so for humans and dogs - at least, that what the data says, and as a science geek I tend to trust it. We know this as sometimes I have to use it in the greenhouse. USed wisely, its effective a safe. But use it on a food crop? Never. Use it outside in the garden? Never. Maybe we might inject a lily bulb to fight the lily beetle but that's it. We keep honey bees, we know the risks.

Yet with plant growth regulators, its just not something I want sprayed on my vegetables. It's bad enough that they use it on our annual flowers which I also prefer to raise myself from seed if only becasue of this fact. Im sick of buying apparantly stocky cosmos or zinnias only to have to stay dwarf and stocky in the cut flower garden. I was tall snapdragons and cosmos that are 5 feet tall like in the gardening magazines.

The ArborJet proprietary system was fascinating. The liquid enters the tree slowly, but one can see the tree actually drinking it up. Like a flu shot. Seeing it all happen in real life reminded me that these trees are living objects. I feel confident that this booster shot will help the trees overcome this infestation . 

All that said, I believe in the proper use of chemicals when nothing else works or when an organic method proves to be ineffective. I'm also a big supporter of organic food, organic food production and never ever use insecticides in the vegetable garden. I support and buy organic produce whenever possible and encourage others to do so as well.  It's all a balance, and we all have to make our own decision on where our ethical line is. Mine is on food crops.

Tomatoes, pepper snad eggplants are the seedlings most often treated by plug growers and vegetable transplant growers with something called PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators. It's hard to find even a single commercial grower or nursery who doesnt use these chemicals on our vegetable seedlings. Should this concern you? I'm not sure yet.

Yet while writing my new book, which my publisher told me this week while I attended an international sales meeting for it that I could and should start promoting - the Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardenings (Dec. 2018), I've been spending days in horticultural society libraries and universities researching, discovering some disturbing trends.

A gypsy moth lays it ugly egg case last July on some of our birch trees. While I know an outbreak is coming this year, there is little I can do about it, I could spray these tres but that seems wasteful, dangerous and not worth the risk to both the environment and this natural outbreak. I was fascinated however by titmice and chickadee's who have been cacheing sunflower seeds into these cases for eating later.

I support much of big agriculture. As a plantsman, I am not against GMO's (not yet) or even the big seed companies like Ball Seed, Sakata, and Pan American. I support plant breeders, and much of the industry involved with horticulture, but there is one thing which concerns me more than non-GMO food. And that is the use of PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators on food crops. Right now, only one is approved for use in a very limited way, but others are coming down the pike if the commercial trade magazines are correct, and most growers are asking for more approval for their use on vegetable transplants for spring sales.

Don't get me wrong, Ball, Sakata, and Pan American are very good companies and I trust that they are being very safe of what they suggest their growers do, but its not in their hands really. They are merely offering how growers can optimally raise a crop that will be, well, perfectly sellable. A grower could choose to raise something organically too, or just in a healty, reasonable way with as few chemicals as needed.

This is more a statement about the entire industry and where it is moving to, often in a response to what we the consumer is telling them through our purchasing habits. In many ways, we are to blame. We who tend to buy the larger tomato plant (albeit far too early in the spring) at the local Lowes or Home Depot when the pansies are out. We who by the larger eggplant in a 1-gallon pot just because it has a fruit on it already, or we who choose to buy the thicker-stalked seedlings over a packet of seeds.

 Some blame does fall on the growers too. But then again, they are in business and need to justify their sales. If no one is buying seedlings from the grower who raised his or her plants without PGR's, what choice do they have?

In a sense, this is virtual product design, and we the consumer are informing the growers what we want. Why would they grow anything else?  OF course the big retailers should know better, but lets be honest - the buyer from one of these big box stores more often than not knows little about agriculture or plants aside from a baseline knowledge that 'tomato plants must be planted out in the spring" and "Oh good, we have super healthy looking tomatoes that are much better than our competitor has.". 'Maybe I'll get a good bonus so that I can go golfing this spring".

Sorry, Mr. Plant Buyer. But now that I'm not wearing a polo shirt with a corporate logo on it, I can say it.

I've been immersing myself in reading the trade magazines for the industry and a couple of the leading greenhouse management magazines have featured articles about potential safety concerns with the use of Plant Growth Regulators and their use by growers on vegetable transplants. This irritated me and concerned me as I read on, not only because now I have proof that those stocky tomatoes were chemically induced, but here is what growers seemed to be complaining about - - that there wasn't enough research about their worker's safety. They were more concerned with how their employees should apply the product - the proper equipment to use and how to ventilate their greenhouses better to avoid overexposure.

Hmmm. I care about them too. How about stop using them?

Sooooooo......What about us the consumer?
Because we're eating the plants.

What about the lady who was buying parsley at the Home Depot or Lowes and who might cut some off and eat it when they got home? What if she picked that green tomato?

The chemical companies are kind-of covered here, for they provide some very strict rules and guidelines for wholesale growers on how soon they can spray a crop before it goes to market - but do I trust that 22 year old told to spray his bosses greenhouses on a Friday afternoon  that he is going to avoid certain crops?

Not really.

What about drift? I asked a friend of mine who works for one of the largest plug growers outside of Boston if they pay attention to what annual or vegetable gets sprayed, and he laughed. "The entire bench or greenhouse is just sprayed."  They'll avoid some crops which are sensitive, but mostly everything gets treated the same way. Certainly all of the peppers and tomatoes.

The crazy thing is at first I didn't react much about this. Plant Growth Regulators don't even really scare me all that much.  I never liked their use on ornamental annuals, but since I prefer to raise my own snapdragons and other annuals which are most commonly sprayed, I could work around it. beleive me, I too have been seduced by ridiculously healthy snapdragons only to realize that my skimpy seedlings out performed them.

Starting ones own seeds remains the best way to maintain crop safty at home. WHich reminds me - this week I started my sweet pea seeds. Spring is on its way.

I don't even mind their use on some disposable crops all that much . I'm a sucker for a super mum with a million buds on it formed into a perfect mound - I know that it isn't natural, but "it's a thing". I get it. Just leave my tomatoes alone.  I know just as I know that some Hollywood boobs are fake (it's true, some are), that tomatoes this husky just aren't natural. Some muscles aren't real either, you know. The same goes for hair, so I've been told.

So what are PGR's?

Plant Growth Regulators are chemicals used to treat many growing plants, especially potted plants. "Chemical's" is a dirty word for many, but not for me. Still, as chemicals, they must be used wisely. There are good uses for many of these PGR's. Science is an amazing thing when you really look into it, and PGR's have proven innovative in many agricultural uses, from research to plant breeding to saving endangered species. While there are many different types, the most common ones used are those which control plants through cell mutation. As one ad in a trade magazine states: (about the only one which is approved for use on vegetable seedlings called - Sumagic, "Controlling Cellular Mutation makes the plant more desirable to the seller and to the buyer.".

Lettuce should never be treated with growth regulators, yet more often than not, they are resulting in what looks like healthy seedlings. Even if it helps performance, who would want to eat that? 

The fact is growers have been using PGR'ssince I went to agricultural college in the late 1970's, and early 80's (yes, I'm that old). The question is are they safe today? Classed as pesticides by the US government the advice clearly strict for those applying the sprays, yet oddly the only articles I could find in trade magazines are those regarding safety concerns - not for us, the consumer, but for those humans in the 'greenhouse who are actually spraying the PGR's. Obviously they are handling stronger concentrations of the chemicals and the risks would be higher, but still, there are risks. Right?  Nothing here was making me feel any better (and I have a pesticide applicators license).

Call me crazy but while I'm slightly OK wearing a space suit to spray for an outbreak of scale, something in me gets nervous when I have to wear gloves to my elbows, suit up head to toe with an aspirator, goggles and a hood just spray my tomato seedlings.

I would encourage any home gardener to sow their own seedlings of every vegetbale to ensure that they are getting the best quality and health benefits from their garden. Even lettuce seed sown outdoors in early spring will look smaller than nursery grown plants, but they will grow into large and healthy plants as soon as the weather warms. This is natural.

Even more concerning was a secondary worry expressed more than a few times in articles by growers that "the use of PGR's might also raise a red flag about food safety as little research has been done on retention and residue on the foliage and fruit of sprayed transplants". All this regarding their use on the three vegetable crops most often treated with PGR's - tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants."


You might be wondering why do growers bother to use PGR's then?

Well, they do make plants look much nicer. I get that, and, plants are a product, and it's a competitive business. If I was a wholesale plug grower or a finished liner grower I imagine that might have to use PGR's just to remain competitive. Tomato plants are a big business and no grower can afford to lose an account like Walmart or Home Depot or they will go bankrupt.  The thing is, these growers won't go out of business if we --  the consumer-- begin to care a little bit more about things that are important, and not gluten, GMO's and fat-free junk. (And yes, it doesn't escape me that I these chemicals are used primarily on 'the nightshades' -- but I don't buy that diet argument either Sorry Elizabeth).

Is the solution here regulation? I don't know. Surely that will scare some folks. The of course, there is the fundamental question is the use of plant growth regulators even safe? I'm, not an alarmist, and while I well know that many phytochemicals can be dangerous which is why I even question the validity and use of triacontanol, when it comes to growth regulators that restrict growth, my antennae go up.

I trust modern science, and I am one of those who still aren't afraid of glyphosate (Roundup) use (yet I would never use it on my vegetables). The entire GMO arguments are useless to me. I make my ethical decisions based on real data and science. Where ever that takes me, so be it. Maybe Plant Growth Regulators needs a good, comprehensive documentary by Michael Pollan?

Home raised seedlings still require some attention, more often than not home growers default to being too 'natural' only using fish emulsion or randomly using a fertilizer becasue it sounded safer without any knowledge of what their particular crop really needs for nutrients. Always do some research yourself. Trust the research universities first before - dare I say it, blogs or articles in magazines. Most repeat bad information. If you only knew the contradictions I've run against researching my book! (you will know about them soon enough!)

I've spent time in greenhouse ranges over the past year, some which are very responsible even though they have dozens of acres under glass. One even impressed me with how they were moving towards more organic or natural controls on insects which were very progressive and interesting. I sense a movement with many growers to a more responsible use of chemicals.

PGR's like Sumagic or Uniconazole do have some online guidelines which are very strict, you can look at them here.  The chemical companies provide very strict guidelines on controlling the amount used on vegetable plants, and how many treatments are considered 'safe'. Their corporate guideline states that applications can be applied 2 weeks before a tomato plant can go to market. Since no one can guarantee that the grower did this, I remain suspicious.

Now, there are natural ways to control height and to create a sturdier plant but they are costly for most transplant growers. One method often talked about on gardening blogs is called 'brushing', it involves a mechanical arm that actually brushes each plant which simulates wind, or stresses the cells in the stems and foliage to grow sturdier. One can, and should do this at home if ones own seedlings to make them grow sturdier - brush them daily with your hand carefully, especially if they are being raised under lights in warmth.

PGR's have their good uses. Melons and cucumber crops use them to stimulate more female blossoms this increasing yeilds. 

I do believe that PGR's have their place though,. I consider myself a science geek and can appreciate the proper use of both insecticides and even PGR's. I use some PGR's myself to aid germination of rare or endangered seeds, and the use of gibberellic acid is common amongst plant people,, some seeds are extremely difficult to germinate without it. I just don't find its use on annual crops that we eat acceptably. Maybe the graphic designer in me should design a logo that can be used to identify plants where PGR's have not been used.

Some peppers from an out-take or a 'making-of' picture from my book. By raising one's own peppers from seed, the diversity and certainly the size and health of the plants can be controlled. Many wholesale growers treat peppers all as ornamental plants, treating them with extra doses of PGR's to both stimulate blooms and more potential pods at the time of sale.

Start one's own seedlings at home.  We can accept the fact that they might appear a bit leggy or not as healthy looking as the steroidal beasts at the nursery. They are supposed to look that way.

One can always ask a good nursery, as there are some who refuse to use any growth regulators. A mom and pop nursery who cares about the varieties they grow and their product will generally be proud of this fact, so ask. As for data out there on the safety of growth regulators, I have yet to read any that make me comfortable. Some state that the PGR's becomes inactive after a period of time, but even so, I don't want my vegetable plants stunted or mutated just because I am too lazy to stake them.

All pepper plants can be considered ornamental but left without growth hormones, they can grow to enormous size. This pot on the right is 30 inches in diameter and the plant nearly 4 feet tall. I would never dream of spraying it. Yet most hot peppers at nurseries have been treated to remain stocky and short. If you dont have to stake your peppers, something was wrong.

The use of PGR's with ornamental plants does concern me a bit. Last year I noticed that many of the perennials found at garden centers are treated to make them short and stocky, and to produce more blooms. This seems like the consumer is being misled, but may be legally growers or seed companies are exempt from lawsuits as many assume that their pots of fall asters or chrysanthemums are just temporary display plants. I suppose I can accept their use on mums but when I read in the trade magazine that their use is recommended on many crops including ornamental grasses and 5-gallon perennials that I am buying for my perennial border, then I am concerned. If I want a tall clump of monarda or campanula, then I want it to grow tall.

Another out-take from my book showing some of the many eggplants that I raised this year. Each plant, 3 of nearly 20 varieties was raised in 5-gallon pots, never sprayed with growth regulators, I had to stake them all but look at the harvest and the diversity.  Yes, I couldn't help but to grow them all.

In the end, the choice is up to us.  It was eyeopening for me to discover most every propagation guide from a major seed distributor outlined methods for wholesale plug growers and vegetable transplant growers on how to apply Uniconazole (Sumagic) to their tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings. PGR use is already used in many food crops to stimulate tuberization and flowering, so it's a slippery slope. Their use on cucumbers and melons to encourage more female blossoms concerns me less, and their use on seed crops to help create certain hybrids hardly worries me. Again, I can appreciate good science. Their uses here are practical and specific - to increase more male or female flower or to improve fruit set and seed production.

But their use on making my eggplant seedling a little more 'healthy looking" nope. I'm good.

The lesson here is to raise your tomatoes, peppers, chili's and eggplants from seed at home, and if you want really tall 40-inch snapdragons too.

A bit of a tease. This isn't the design, just my take for the sales meeting this week.

January 28, 2018

Rating Tomatoes - Which Ones are the Best to Eat and not the ones I grew last year.

I ordered my tomato seeds today, and even an old dog like me has learned new tricks.

I know - I overshared a bit in my last post. Enough of the 'Groaning with Plants' posts. Back to business and today, that means tomatoes. I've been writing my pages on tomatoes for my book, which reminded me that I had better order seed now before it is too late. I won't be sowing seed until late April or early May for setting out into the garden in early June, but I know from experience that the hard-to-get varieties will be impossible to get once spring comes around.

Believe me, gardeners can get seriously geeky about tomatoes.

First off, don't assume that all heirloom tomatoes are good to eat, also don't assume that the nursery will grow only the best varieties. You will need to do some research, read all of the catalogs and some of the best books on tomatoes out there (I share some of those later in this post), and then make your own decisions based on what you will be using you tomatoes for. You might want sweeter varieties or some that are more acidic for caning. Meaty or savory varieties might be preferred over slicers, or you might be planning on making sauce and not eating them all raw with sea salt. If you are like me, you night be able to find a reason to grow every one.

Tomatoes. I've neglected them, lately. Only grew a few last year (30 or so plant, which is 'just a few' for me, most of which I have to admit didn't do very well, which is surprising as it was a very good tomato year last year (very little Late Blight). I realized what my problem was half-way through the gardening season - I didn't do my homework, and I took a risk trying a bunch of heirlooms which I wasn't familiar with. Big mistake. Here is how it all happened.

I was writing my book so needed lots of space for other veggies that I knew I wouldn't be able to find elsewhere - like 15 varieties of okra, lots of melons and watermelons, dried beans, and odd cucumbers from Tibet and elsewhere. I didn't want to ever have to buy a vegetable from a market and photograph it for my book as it feels wrong. In much the same way that a garden writer should never write about a plant that they never have grown. It's just a pet peeve of mine along with photos of supermarket vegetables set into a garden scene. If I see asparagus spears shoved into the ground in an attempt to make look as if they were growing there, who knows what I will do.

Of course I grow flowers. I grow, well, everything, right? Don't you? Does anyone else have this pereption problem?

TOmato seedlings last April. Yes, it is far too early in much of the country to start planting tomatoes, but it isnt too early to order ones seed. The really good varieties will be sold out.

My tomatoes don't get planted into the ground until early June, when our soil warms up to near 70 deg. I've even sown seed directly before and the plants raced back large seedlings from the Home Depot. Soil temperature is key.  How many of you use a soil thermometer? Most commerical growers do.

SO-- my book. My hope is to introduce step-by-step images for more unusual veggies especially for those which few people grow - like Lima beans, Okra, Bitter Melon, Luffa, Parsnips.As for the common veggies like beans and yes, tomatoes, well, it looks like I need to touch on those deeper as well.

I suppose that I was being conscious and felt that I need to respect what information is already out in the marketplace for vegetable growing books Do any of you really need to know how I raise string beans, zucchini or tomatoes? I assumed that most vegetable gardeners already know how to plant the most common vegetable in the vegetable garden, or am I wrong?  And, I very well could be wrong, for even I screwed up epically with tomatoes this past year.

With thousands of tomato varieties now available, why limit yourself to the names you know? But be careful - for looks isn't everything. I still buy the rainbow, but look first to the flavor profile before I look at the color. First look for flavor, then for type (Beefsteak, cherry, pear, etc) then for use - sauce and stuffing tomatoes don't need to be sweet and flavorful, it's often OK to choose a variety which is bland or firm with pulp, others, may need to be acidic and low in sugar. Know what your ultimate use is.

Here's why.

I skipped sowing tomatoes last spring, as I knew that I would need space in the greenhouse for more unusual crops for my book.  Besides, I could find my favorite varieties at local garden centers or at plant sales. I wasn't worried about finding Striped German's and Prudens Purples. I can even find Green Zebra's at the Walmart garden center now.

But as luck has it, planting plans were altered In early June just after Joe and I drove up to Vermont to scout out some other sources for other vegetables that I needed. We stopped at Walker's Farm Stand a place I had heard of through Wayne Winterrowd's books but never found a reason to take the 2-hour drive to visit.]

Upon pulling into the parking lot a couple of customers and a worker there actually recognized us, which was funny - blog followers are everywhere, I am convinced, so once I was able to ditch the inevitable paparazzi and sign a few autographs (kidding, but close - really), we shopped.

Walker's Farm in Dummerston Vermont (relatively near us )offers hundreds of perfectly raised tomato seedlings each spring in individual pots. I just need to learn about which varieties to choose. Best to go prepared next year. Better yet - I will start some myself as one never knows if they will be sold out, or skipped a variety for a year.

It was late in the day and the place was about to close.

Walker's was, which I didn't know,  known for pre-started heirloom tomato plants - they had individual pots of over 250 heirloom varieties! So many that Joe and I instantly both entered plantamorphicparalysis or more accurately, Horticultimania - you know, that condition which afflicts only plant people when they become overwhelmed by awesome selection.

The same thing happens with a few female friends I know, at pop-up Manolo store sales (a couple of male friends, too). (I know as if there are Manolo stores and Manolo sales.).

The problem was, they had only one laminated list which was typewritten, with a single-line description along with the lines of "bright orange with a tart flavor:, for each variety, and it was chained to a bench. There was a woman who kept warning us that "Boy's - we're closing in 5 minutes you know" so that didn't help with anything except with the volume of plants we were grabbing. And grab, we did. You do what you have to do in such situations.

Quickly, I snapped at Joe "Just pick out 10 of your favorite names and I'll grab 10 names that I like. The only rule is to not choose a variety that you've heard of before."

So we grabbed ones with interesting Russian names or anything with 'Pineapple or Peach' in it. If it was a black anything, we grabbed it. If it said 'blue' or 'purple' that too.

Stop judging me! You would do the same thing. They were only about $3.00 each (I think, really, I don't remember), but they weren't $7.00 or anything near the price of a single 4 inch fancy Proven Winners type of annual.

With this strategy, we would surely end up with some very interesting choices. The 'Big Beefsteak types' and "Green Zebra's were varieties that are not rare,  and I could find those anywhere, even at Walmart.

For years I have grown tomatoes, both heirlooms, and new hybrids but after a disaster last year, I discovered that all tomatoes -heirloom or not, are not created the same.

As I said, space was limited so I only added a few more plants of black-fruited ones that I did start in the greenhouse, believing that I had a pretty good selection of both colorful and hopefully, flavorful tomatoes. Like most gardeners, I kept my fingers crossed that 2017 might be a good year for tomatoes and a bad year for Phytopthora infestans - the dreaded 'late blight' that can turn a bed of tomatoes into a wicked moldy mess of dead leaves and fruit by August.

As it turned out, it was a decent year for tomatoes, and it seems that I had everything in order. Three new bee hives were busy pollinating, lots of sunny days, and I was home so I could water and fertilize, prune, train and stake almost every day, but few tomatoes were forming, and the ones that were beginning to look uninteresting.

I turned to my friend Amy Goldman Fowler's landmark book  'The Heirloom Tomato' and decided to look up all of the names of those tomatoes we bought in Vermont to see how she rated them.

Amy goes into great detail not only about growing tomatoes, but lists many in here book each with their name, their synonyms (and there are many of those, so it helps with the confusion that exists between many heirloom varieties as the names were handed down, shared and traded, often changing along the way.

With my tags in hand, and gradually learned that each of the tomatoes we bought from that massive list in Vermont had indeed a great name, but the quality rating in her book confirmed my fears, In fact, I don't think that we had a single tomato variety worthy of a home garden.

I rarely plant tomatoes directly into the open soil without mulch anymore, but sometimes I need to. If so, I plant new varieties bred for disease resistance and hybrid vigor.

For example, rushed as we were, we both grabbed a healthy looking seedling of a variety that had the name 'Alberta Peach', an heirloom peach fuzz coated variety with very fuzzy leaves and enormous leaves. In Amy's book, I began to find varieties listed which began to excite me.

'Pink Peach'
Amy says that the flavor is 'Peachy keen' ,

OK, that sounds like it was a good choice.

Then Amy writes about one called'Yellow Peach'.
The Flavor the said is 'Excellent and well balanced.'

OK, that's good too,

Then'Peach Blow Sutton'.

Flavor: Excellent. Amy wrote that it is  "cool and refreshing" . A "tomato-lite flavor".
(OK, not sure what "tomato-lite" is, but it cant be that bad.).

'Peche', Amy writes, is a variety from 1891 with at flavor profile of: "Good, mildly sweet and refreshing".

Yes. I want that too,

Joe picking the last of last year's tomatoes. A bit of late blight, but it was nearly October.

But the problem was that I could not find one called 'Alberta Peach'. Maybe I was missing something, or maybe it was just one of the thousands of names of heirloom tomatoes was just synonymous with another similar variety. Yet while I perusing the index in Amy's book,  I found a variety called 'Elberta Girl', and began to think that maybe the label was misspelled.

Sure enough, under the synonyms which Amy so thoughtfully lists for each variety found that another name for this tomato was indeed  'Elberta Peach'. Nice. This is a comprehensive book and the research that went into it shows.

The description though was nto what I expected. This wasnt an old heirloom at all but rather one from the 1980's. Amy's then wrote these notes:

'Elberta Girl'. Flavor: "A juicy hardball. The skin is waxy,
bypass the striped fruit of Elberta Girl-unless you want a hood ornament".

I didnt want a hood ornament.

Oh, Amy. Where did I go wrong?

Every summer we host tomato tasting parties, that is until last year. Many friends from California to the Netherlands are familiar with these dinners and some plan visits for late August and early September. Yum!

I guess I should have read every single entry in your gorgeous book and not be distracted by the beautiful photos byVictor Schrager.

So I did.


All of the varieties I grew last year had their flavor profiles and sometimes their brix numbers in their descriptions. When I looked up the varieties that I grew last year, I coudl see exactly where I went wrong. Sometimes, if not most of the time, the name and colors of heirloom tomatoes can misselead you.

Black Plum, Flavor, --"Bland"
King Humbert, Flavor-- "Bland"
Brown Flesh, Flavor: -- Fair to good"
Caro-Rich, Flavor -- "Fair to non-descript'
Black Prince, Flavor: -- "Poor"

The list went on.

"on the acidic side",
"mildly pleasing at best".

I suck at picking out tomato varieties.

I am not kidding here, and although I know this list is somewhat subjective, it's also not as if Amy doesn't know her tomatoes. Amy's husband is Cary Fowler, Ph.D., the former Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and instrumental in the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank in Norway. Surely he knows good tomatoes. Amy herself is a noted plantswoman with many accomplishments; author of four books on vegetables, three of which have won  American Horticultural Society's Book of the Year awards. Amy is also sits on the Board at the New York Botanical Garden. Amy is known as a tomoto guru (and a squash, melon and pepper guru just to name a few). She grows hundreds and hundreds of varieties on her farm. She's even had tomatoes named after her. For that metter,  she's even named tomatoes.

When the skills of a serious scientist and serious gardener combine - in a kitchen, something tells me that they would know how to judge the flavor quality of a tomato.

Her books are worth getting and reading and rereading not just becasue they are beuatifully designed and photographed, but because they are well written and exceptionally well researched. The reader can tell that Amy didnt sit on Google 'researching', but  that she spent hours and hours in librarys.

Let me put it this way: Gregory Long, President of the New York Botanical Garden describes her as 'perhaps the world's premier vegetable gardener.", and I have to agree. Joe and I have spent hours in her fields of melons, squashes, peppers and tomatoes oogling at the diversity and trials. You want to read books by people who collected and grew all of what they wrote about - and then know that they did the research as well. Brilliant.

Clusters of tomatoes ripen in a beautiful way, from the bottom to the top, but we often nevert appreciate the coloring until the winter when we discover a photo like this.

So, I learned my lesson here. I made some assumptions about tomatoes, only buying the ones I was familar with, but when I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried some new ones, I didnt do my homework. Amy's book informed me in many ways. It showed me what tomatoes I should have grown, and after a couple of hours reading every page I ended up with lists. One had 30 heirloom varieties on it, all rated high on flavor performance. Each were described as being 'Excellent" in flavor, and a few as "sublime", "Sumptuous', "perfection, with both highest sugar and acid". I eliminated any rated as "good" or "sweet and nutty", "balanced" or even "Good to Excellent", clearly, I've been spooked.

Every year find the photos of tomato harvests from previous years, and it's fun to look at one's notes and the colors to see what worked, and what didn't. This shot is from 4 years ago, and with no notes, I cant remember now what varieties I had.

I am not going to share all of the varieties that I ordered tonight, as many get sold out quickly.  Amy does list sources, and there are many, in the back of her book. A couple here I will share:

Tomato Bob's and Totally Tomatoes, are two that I recommend aside from the sources we already know. Each offers hundreds of tomato varieties as well as other vegetables. If you want the full list I suggest that you get Amy's book. It wouldn't be right for me to post them all here, besides, the list is too long.

Another helpful resource is the Cornell University site called VEGETABLE VARIETIES FOR GARDENERS were one can enter the name of any vegetable and see ratings by both professional and amateur gardeners. It's a site that will show you the highest rated tomatoes (or radishes, squash or what have you) as well as the lowest. Reviews are entered in daily and it's easy to waste a lot of time on this site. FYI - 'Sungold' was reviewed the most with 4 and a half stars.

I have no problem sharing my sources, however, if you think that will be helpful, I can write that list up in the next post - just let me know in the comments sections, sometimes there are secret sources that escaped someone, but most of the time I just assume everyone knows everything.

With thousands of 'heirloom' tomatoes out there, even the most experienced can get confused. What I've learned is to not trust the names, to not trust that all 'heirlooms' are indeed old tomatoes and that just because the big seed companies carry a pretty variety, it doesn't mean that there are not others out there which are better.

Amy's book has 6 pages of sources on-line, it's a book I use frequently to help me week out the trash tomatoes, for the catalogs, especially the heirloom tomato and pepper catalogs are full of hyperbole and "this is my favorite!", which really doesn't help me. Either that or I just don't trust anyone anymore!

I will share that I bought:
Casady's Folly, Dixie Golden Giant, Aunt Ruby's German Green, to name a few.

If you have a fav, please share it and tell us why.


January 25, 2018

January Blues, February Brights

Time to get out of a mid-winter January funk. A record crop of Meyer lemons in the greenhouse might help.

It's been tough. I mean, I expected this. Book deadline looming and I just started writing. Even though I lost my job last winter I was fortunate to have a severance package, but it runs out in a month. I'm not ignorant to the fact that I am still quite fortunate, but I also know that changes are on the doorstep, and maybe I haven't prepared enough for them (hello? Health insurance?). Ive been trying to squeeze in doctor appointments and dental work before March.

I usually like January too - not only do I love snow, it's my birthday month. I should mention that I've officially reached that time in my life when it's like "birthdays? Really? I'm not talking about it.

Then there is this funk which is probably just a combo of everything. Not to mention Post-Holiday Diets, the unusually cold and snowy weather we've been getting here in the Northeast (bomb cyclone and the coldest weather in over 100 years).

This all seems to have manifested itself into a "might-as-well-just-wear-sweatpants-all-day-long-and-watch-Netflix" mentality.

Not healthy.

I have no interest in opening mail. In ordering seeds, or even for looking at nursery sites. I've kind-of lost interest in these things. I dont think that it's depression really, more like the fact that I feel as if I've grown everything and I cant find something new to be interested in. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

I am feeding the birds which is begining to really sound like a very old-man thing - (don't say it).  Still, I'm not doing much more.  Its really only a function. Thistle feeder is out again, dump more in. I'm not 'watching' the birds, which is probably worse now that I think about it. Guilt feeding.

They eat alone, (which they probably like).

I had little problem writing for the book however, so I suppose that is a good sign. Sitting in my office with the snow falling outside has been one of the most favorite things to do. Yet my problem still seems like that I don't feel like working, or not working for that matter don't dont feel like buying plants, nor watering the ones I have anymore either. Nothing seems interesting anymore, and I've lost confidence in what I am doing.

This week our weather seems to have entered another phase -  bit milder (fingers-crossed that it sticks). With these more average temperatures (highs near freezing and lows in the 20's) much of the drama from the early weeks of January has passed. I even am beginning to think about the future more.

I actually sowing a bit of seed today -some flats of mesclun.  I even smelled the first whiffs of the Sarcococca hookeriana in the greenhouse (which we need to grow in a pot here in Massachusetts - don't taunt me Oregon or North Carolina!).

I'm good with the potted semi-tender shrubs like Sarcococca because under glass on a snowy, January day the greenhouse smells just like Tahiti (OK, more like early spring in the Himalaya - whatever...). It warms my soul and I kind of need that lately. At least it provided some hopefulness that I'll 'like it all' again.

Some casualties from the cold include this Canarina canariensis, but after following lots of chatter on the Pacific Bulb Society newsgroup, its bulb-like root may be OK. Many say that I should plant this tender geophyte that has gorgeous orange bell-shaped flowers like in this post, in the ground in my greenhouse, and it might do better. I'm going to try this. I need something to do.

A few freezes didnt hurt the South African bulbs. I kept the soil dry through most of January, which helps the cells expand in case there is a hard freeze. We had the coldest weather in over 100 years with a week of night temps below -12° F.

My book on vegetable gardenings is underway, mostly photo editing and writing at this phase. So, that has been my focus - choosing the best pics, researching at the library at the horticultural society and writing.

The cyclamen are sturdy fellows, able to withstand some very frosty nights with no harm. As long as the roots don't freeze the more tender species like C. graecum, I'm OK. I was able to fertilize them this week on my first visit out the greenhouse this year,.

South African bulbs really don't seem to mind the cold and the wet. These Babiana fragrans may bloom by springtime. As you can see, I never cleaned up the foliage from last season. It's very fibrous and tough and needs scissors to remove it in when the pot is dormant in mid-summer. I figure that this is what happens in the wild (there are no baboons out there cutting the dead foliage down, just digging and eating the bulbs). The iris-like flowers will be pretty though in a few weeks.

Citrus like these Calamondin oranges are blooming, even though half of the plant died from frost.

Other citrus are just not handling this winter all that well. This is what is left of my big Kumquat tree. Not a victim of frost however, but of a misplaced electric space heater.

Tropaeolim - tjhe vining, high-elevsation tuberous types from the Andes seem to relish this weather though. They look so tender and frail, with thread-like stems yet after the hot, summer dormancy, take off covering little trellis' in just a month - blooms will soon follow.
Tuberous Tropeolum grow from round tubers like potatoes. Here is a new species I am growng -  T. ciliatum, a tuber that I acquired from a collector in September. Its  growth is still small and weak. I think that it will appreciate being moved to a sunnier spot in the greenhouse now that it is getting warmer in there.
Another tropeolum species T. tricolor  looked completely dead, and I feared its late emergence meant that something ate the bulb, but it was just last winters growth that I hadn't cleaned up in the summertime (see a trend here?). Not watered since May, I noticed a bit of thread-like growth earlier this week, and after carefully removing the dead foliage found these new stems twirling around.

Last weekend the sun came out, so after journeying out into the greenhouse - sweatpants and all - I coudl see that most of the Dutch bulbs and South African bulbs were emerging. I moved them all to a sunny sand bed, watered them and in just a few days, things have come back to life.

Scilla messeniaca a lesser-known scilla is beginning to show its buds.
The camellias that were planted in the ground always seem to bloom well even in the coldest winters.  One snowy night in a blizzard two weeks ago the gas man wanted to see what I had in the greenhouse around 2 am, but I told him that it wasn't pot - but I could tell by his expression that he didn't believe me so, I shown a flashlight through the frosty glass and this thing was illuminated. He said "Wow, what the Hell is that?". "Not pot, I replied."

Camellias in pots are hardy too if the roots dont freeze. More sturdy than the insulating bubble wrap it seems.

The South African plants are remarkable cold hardy. This Erica 'Winter's Flame' is just starting to bloom.

Narcissus cantabricus, a native North African narcissus species blooms early in the greenhouse sand bed. It is sweetly fragrant - like cottoncandy (which reminds me - when was the last time I smelled cotton candy? It's sweetly scented like a vanilla candle from Target.).

If I was to grow one Nerine, it would be this one - N. alata or N. undulata. I have six stems in bloom this year. It too didnt seem to mind a few light frosts in early January.

The chili peppers didnt like the frost. And while many people keep some chili pepper plants from year to year for a while (like Chiltepin type), these probobly wont make it. I do have some Chiltepin and Tepin pepper plants in the house, however.

The biggest citrus I have is a massive tub planted with a Mandarin orange tree. It was hit by the blast of the propane furnice, and I fear that it wont recover.

Moving forward, I have all hopes that I am moving out of this funk I'm in.  No worries, I'm a pretty positive guy and maybe I just need a challenge. I can't tolerate 'meh' for long.

You're probably thinking that I am just depressed.  Maybe - just a little, but most likely I'm not sleeping because I'm scared, bored and for some reason not motivated because of a combination of all of those things - which is probobly completely normal, right?

After all - this is a big life change I'm going through over the next few momnths. With my severance runnings out in march health insurance is my greatest concern (Cobra?).  IT seems that there is no shortage of freelance projects and consulting on my doorstep, but just how much and how fruitful or consistant it will all be, I dont know. I dont do well with inconsistancy - you know, used to that pay check every two weeks.

SOrry for thinking aloud here, but if you've read this far, you can probably see that this is just like therapy for me. Social therapy.

I've never collected an unemployment check in my life either, but ick - I may have to. I just feel like a failure too I guess.

Yet I promise to not let things get to me too much, this blog which I thought that I would have so much time to redesign and improve, will still go on.  I need to move forward and think about the garden again - and what's next on the horizon for my projects.

I have jsut started thinking about my annual 'special projects' list, which is a bit overdue.

 I am thinking about gladiolus again, a genus I have been putting off for a while now because dahlias got in the way - there are so many lovely crosses if you've even attended a gladiolus society show you know what I mean. Then there are fuschias to try again, but raising them in a different way - training them as standards or as large tubbed specimens, and then perhaps exploring how to create a mini-cut flower garden at home, designed to offer cut flowers for every week of the summer and fall, a mini-flower farm, if you will.

Last year I was reminded of how great coleus looks in group containers, and I am imagining an entire collection of coleus - growing them in odd or creative ways - espalier comes to mind. -

Asian gourds, a big chapter from my book has inspired me to try on a greater scale. Especially after visiting Chow's parents (a Vietnamese friend of mine) whos family grew so many types in their back yard near where I live. Those will definitely be on my grow list this year - including luffa, sponge gourds and bitter melon and how to grow them, because even though many of us know what a bitter melon looks like - who knows how to cook with them? I've learned this year, and want to share it.

Oh yes, and dahlias. And sweet peas. And the tastiest tomatoes - Amy Goldman Fowler's great book THE HEIRLOOM TOMATO has reminded me that the tastiest ones are not any of the varieties I have grown in the past. Thank you Amy! Get it and read it closely - it's fabulously rich with information and well researched.

See? I'll be OK.

There are then other projects which failed once again that I want to retry until I master them. More about those later. Those potted tubs of 19th century Miognonette are going to be mastered - I know it.