Showing posts with label Editorial. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Editorial. Show all posts

January 4, 2010

Better Boy or Bubble Boy- Is there a Future for the Home Grown Tomato?

Image from La Tomatina in Spain fro webEcoist, perhaps this is what we will end up doing with our tomatoes next year?

Of all garden grown produce, it is the tomato, which reigns supreme, for nothing tastes as delicious and as good as a home grown tomato. Right?

But then, there came last year's nearly Nation wide, early and virulent outbreak of Late Blight. And suddenly, it seems that Big Boy and Better Boy aren't going to be good enough, what we might end up needing is something like a Burpee's Bubble Boy, the ultimate disease Free tomato of the future resistant to everything.

In 2009, in much of the US, everything seemed to change overnight when it comes to growing tomatoes. The emergence of a disease, which seemed to spread like wild fire, killed or maimed most every plant from Florida to Michigan, to Maine. Many of us wondered, "Is it even worth growing tomatoes at all?"

The season started off optimistic, with many home gardeners raising their own plants, many turning to organic methods, and even more first time vegetable garden growers giving the economy. Even the White House had a vegetable garden. It started to feel like the Victory Garden years in the 1940's, with growers planning to can, preserve and freeze their nutrient-rich treasures. But by mid-July, everything changed, at least the tomatoes and potatoes did.

2009 was a landmark year, for the pathogen the causes a disease called Late Blight seemed to spread overnight, starting in the mid-Atlantic states, and then throughout the North East killing most tomato plants in what seemed, every ones garden, even Martha Stewart's. We learned, eventually, in news reports that there we're a number of causes, and fingers started to be pointed at everything from the unseasonal weather ( cool and wet) to the big box stores like Wal Mart and Home Depot, who were reportedly selling plants that had spread the spores that could be traced to a single wholesale grower in Georgia.

Now, in early 2010, as many of us plan what we are going to plant in our home vegetable gardens this summer, some of us are reviewing whether we should our even could, grow tomatoes ever again. Since last year I had to yank my 14 varieties of heirloom plants by mid July, and had no tomatoes to can or put-up, I too am thinking "What am I going to do this year?"

So I've been doing some online research, and what I found has been interesting, and a little eye opening. Both, about the causes and newly found facts about Late Blight and the pathogen that allows it to grow ( Phytophthora infestans) and then, some facts on what we can, and cannot do to manage this disease. Then, I ran some numbers on what it would actually cost to raise a tomato in today's environment, organically.

First, some facts about Late Blight. Mostly from this excellent paper written by Margaret Tuttle McGrath, from the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant Microbe Biology at Cornell University. This site is updated frequently with newly found facts, and we should all read it.

1. Is Late Blight a New Disease? No. Many of us now know that Late Blight, is the same highly destructive disease that caused the great Potato Famine in Ireland in the 1840's. It affects both Potatoes and Tomatoes, and it has been in the US everywhere for over 100 years.

2. Why did many of us get the disease last year?
In many ways, 2009 offered conditions much like "The Perfect Storm". A cold, wet spring, mass distributed infected plants that could spread the spores, and little sunshine.

3. Will the disease appear again this year?
It's hard to tell, but most likely it will, since it tends to appear late ( the Late part in Late Blight), perhaps in the early autumn, when moisture and temps are perfect for the growth of the spores. But here is the surprising fact, according to the Cornell report, the blight does not occur every year in many locations, in fact, on Long Island, in has only appeared 4 times in 20 years.

SO what can we do to help avoid it this year?

OK, first, a few more answers to questions you may be asking.

1. Am I better off starting my own tomato plants from seed rather than by buying them from a nursery?
Perhaps, but honestly, it probably doesn't make a difference, unless the plants you buy from a nursery have the disease, as some did last year. Since the virus cannot live on seeds, both sources are safe from the beginning. Like a cold, your plants are not going to catch a cold if you keep them safe and not exposed to an infected plant "Sneezing" if you will, and giving them the spores. This is unlikely to happen in a typical year. For even plants grown in Northern nurseries could not possibly have the disease, unless it emerged early, again. I would perhaps avoid southern grown plants, but remember, the conditions last year included weather, for a few, hot sunny days could have changed much of this.

2. Should I be looking at sterilizing my soil in the garden, or burning last years plants? What is my neighbor never pulled their infected plants? I heard that the spores are in our soil, and can spread for miles anyway. so why bother?

Here's some more surprising truth. The pathogens which cause Late Blight cannot live in cold soil, and they die in the compost pile at 110 degrees F, which is well below what most compost piles reach, so there is no need to sterilize your garden soil, or to chastise your lazy neighbor for not cleaning up their garden.

The disease can only live in live plant tissue, so if your garden freezes solid, and you plants turn to much, you are fine, at least from this one pathogen. Care must be taken in greenhouses where the disease can live in live tomato plants, or, in other Solanum tissue, such as your home grown potatoes in the home, or cellar. Do not replant these live tissue plants into your garden, or you will be reintroducing the disease.

3. Should I sterilize my garden stakes? Or, even use them again? What about containers and soiless mixes? I heard that tomatoes grow best in sterile soil, and that I should replace it each year?

There is no need to sterilize stakes, tomato cages or pots each year, since the pathogen cannot live outside of live plant tissue. That said, there are a host of other diseases like Fusarium, etc, that would be killed with a 5% bleach solution wash, but that is up to you. For the subject of this post, there is no need to sterilize anything. You cannot 'Disinfect something which is not, infected. Plain, and simple. As for sterile soil. it is true that sterile soil helps with many plant diseases, especially for tomato culture, and many tomatoes survive longer in, let's say, ProMix, than in the garden, so I would be safe, and use new soil, not to avoid Phytophthora infestans, as much as other pathogens and diseases.

In the garden, it is always wise to keep your garden clean, but there is no need to sterilize with black plastic first, or wash your cages. Plant as usual, and then mulch with plastic or straw, to keep the soil from splashing on the lower foliage, for other disease can spread. If there is another outbreak, there is not much you can do anyway.

4. OK. If there is another outbreak, and if I see damaged leaves, what can I do?
Since this disease is so aggressive and fierce, I personally would sacrifice the crop again. But if you want to save it, perhaps, if the crop is infected late in the season, you can try removing all infected parts every day, and spray with an organic fungicide, but there is not much you can do, and the disease is latent by 4 days, so once you have it for the year, you are stuck with it.

5. Why did my local farm stand have tomatoes and I didn't?
Commercial growers are more aggressive in managing their crops. We can all take a hint from the large commercial organic growers, and spray with an organic fungicide weekly BEFORE the disease is reported. This management program is critical, since, once your plants show signs of leaf browning, it is too late. The reason you saw tomatoes at most farm stands last year, is that most commercial operations use non-organic fungicides ( not to be confused with insecticides), which are stronger and more effective in controlling the fungus like disease.

Here is an odd fact about the spores I should note: For now, in the North East, we are safe, but know this; Although they are neither male nor female, they do need to reproduce. Biologists call these spores "mating-types" or Oospores. These special structures, if formed, can allow the disease to survive the winter in the soil without living plant tissue, and perhaps will be something to look for in the future, but for the moment, these Oospores have only been reported in Florida in both mating types, so for now, we in the north, are safe. Another reason to stay tuned to efforts in genetic plant breeding efforts, like Monsanto, as they experiment with genetically modified research, it can be good, or disastrously bad. ( I never was one of those conspiracy theorists, but after watching the film Food Inc, I'm starting to think differently).

6. Is this copper fungicide, which is supposed to be organic, safe to eat?
Reportedly it is. But it is still best to wash it off, which is easy with water. And, it's another reason why you need to spray every 7 days, it washed off to easy. The blue residue may seem scary, but copper fungicide is a surface treatment, a "contact fungicide' and it is not absorbed through the cell walls of plants. Human consumption according to the RDA is safe, see the Cornell Report for specific info, but unless you have a rare copper sensitive disease, it is considered harmless to humans.

SO, this brings us to what we might do this year regarding home grown tomatoes. Simply, it appears that any seed is safe, and that perhaps, home grown plants in good, sterile soil is the safest bet. In our modern world, there are some varieties which are more resistant to the disease, so I researched and found which ones ( see below). Although many heirlooms are popular, many are also more susceptible to disease, but in regards to this specific one, variety is either "resistant" or not. There is no in between, so grow what you want, and cross your fingers.

I've also been thinking if it is even worth growing your own tomatoes. I mean, does is even make sense financially?

At my local farm stand, which is not organic, field grown heirloom tomatoes are $5.00 a pound in season, and regular tomatoes are $3.99 at the cheapest week, the first week of September. In our nearest organic supermarket, a Whole Foods in Framingham, MA, heirlooms were being sold at $8.99 per lb in August, peak tomato season. They were $10.99 per lb. in July.

Last year, I purchased 14 varieties of seed, some new containers from Garden Supply Company, and some new cages, at significant cost. Then, there was the cost of the ProMix. I laughed a little and joked with my friends that I am going to grow the most expensive tomatoes in the world.

But this year, I really had to think about not only the cost, but whether is was even worth the time and effort, if all I was going to do was to yank my yellow, diseased plants and toss them by July. After this research, I am more hopeful about a decent crop of tomatoes, if the weather, and disease spores play along, but still, there is the cost thing..... so, I wondered, what do my tomatoes cost?

Let's see...

First, I would have a strategy, and mine is this:
Grow mostly disease resistant varieties, and there are a few, that are resistant to Late Blight.
I'm going to buy the seed of the highest quality ( non genetically modified) organically grown seed of the newest hybrid varieties like Johnny's Selected Seeds' JT0-99197, a sexy sounding name for one of their blight resistant varieties, and then, there is this handy chart supplied on line here by Cornell University, which lists the major tomato varieties, and their disease resistance ( note - there are NO varieties of tomatoes that are completely immune to the early or late blight, only some that are resistant- then, factor in weather conditions, soil, moisture, air borne pathogens, etc).

According to the Cornell document, there are only a few varieties that are 'resistant to Early Blight, and/or Late Blight. Unfortunately, a few if not most of these are not immune or resistant to other tomato diseases like Fusarium wilts, etc, but I will take my chances. There were a few surprises on this list, mainly the variety known as 'Juliet', a small indeterminate ( long vine) plum type introduced in the past decade. Juliet is resistant to both diseases, so that is on my list.

The other tomatoes are here, broken out by the disease they are most resistant to.

Early Blight Resistant Varieties

JTO-99197 ( From Johnny's Selected Seeds)
Matt's Wild Cherry
Mt. Fresh Plus F1
Tommy Toe
Old Brook

Varieties Resistant to Late Blight

Golden Sweet

then, I will grow my plants in both garden soil in the garden, with mulch, and in containers with sterile soil.

I will fertilize not with a high nitrogen fertilizer ( like MiracleGRO) but with one which is high in Phosphorus, starting right from the beginning. This is important, in building strong, healthy plants.

Most importantly, I will establish a routine organic spray of a Fungicide BEFORE I see any hint of disease, in an effort to keep my plants growing as healthy as ever. Eventually, they will succumb, but hopefully, they will survive until late September.

Now, the cost. Here is my shopping list.

$148.00 Clean Soil ( 4 bales sterilized ProMix) $37.00 for starting and growing plants
$29.95 4 units of Jumbo plastic cells at $12.95 ( or a soil black maker for $29.95)
$79.95 1 heating mat @ $79.95
$50.00 Tomato Seed - Budget $50.00
$29.90 Plastic mulch for garden grown varieties (biodegradable) $14.95 per 32'unit x 2
two more plastic containers from Garden Supply $29.00 each
$45.00 Floating Row Cover for new plants 83' at $45.00
$39.95 Wooden Plant Tags 1 unit $39.95
$37.95 Dustin Mizer dust sprayer $37.95
$119.00 Solo Back Pack Sprayer $119.00
$155.00 Oxidate® 2.5 Gal. to mix for organic control of fungus $155.00
$99.00 Actinovate organic control for foliar disease $99.00
$ 155.00 Champ® Copper hydroxide, the premium control for tomatoes that is organic, 20lb for $155.00
$108.00 for 8 Tomato Grow Bags from Gardeners Supply, $14.95 each ($13.50 if more than 2)
$93.90 Tomato cages for tomato grow bags, 4 for $46.95
$94.50 Sea Com, no nitrogen organic fertilizer- natural Sea Weed, the best for tomatoes, $94.50

Grand total for proper supplies to grow disease resistant tomatoes is
$1285.10. give take a hundred for substituting the unnecessary wooden plant tags or heating mat. Still, this was the list I made last night, and this was the total for just growing tomatoes. Not cukes, or beans, but just for tomatoes.

And that of course does not include twine, water, heat, labor, etc.
OK, If I grow 16 tomato plants, 8 in containers, and 8 in the ground spaced at the recommended distance of 36 inches apart, and assuming that I get 15 tomatoes per plant, that would be roughly 240 tomatoes. Alright, some are cherries, but let's not go there. Now, I will round out the number to 250 tomatoes, being optimistic. This brings the total tomato cost , per tomato, to bring the cost of each fine, perfect tomato to,

here is the moment of truth.......

$5.14 per tomato.


Not bad, really. I didn't expect to get this result, since I was thinking, maybe $100 per tomato! Perhaps it isn't such a big deal to grow your own tomatoes, given the comparison with local in-season markets and quality, at least, I will know what went into mine, and yes, I can reduce costs with the little things like containers, creative stakes and labels.

In the end, I will still try growing tomatoes. Damn it, I will! And, I'll even splurge on the fancy wooden labels, what the Hell! They deserve it. Heck, I deserve it.

July 9, 2009

Did Terrain kill Smith & Hawken?

Smith & Hawken RIP
Here is the sign on the Smith and Hawkin website, right now.

Scott's Miracle Grow Company announced today that they are shutting down their high-end gardening retail business Smith & Hawken this week. ( I know! Scott's Miracle grow!! They bought the company in 2004...interesting.). I suppose it is not surprising that the brand was headed in this direction, after all, the signs were all there. My favorite location, on West Broadway in New York started carrying less and less merchandise that was unique and stylish, opting for more mass market brands and items, with less creative uniqueness that the brand was originally known for, and then Smith & Hawken started licensing the brand to Target Stores with a low-end line. All nails in the coffin, in many ways, of course, along with the economy and the competition. Yes....the competition.

Look....as a designer and a creative trend hunter, I can't help but apply my filters to my hobbies, too. For those of us interested in plants, things are changing fast. For most people, growing plants has become a lifestyle hobby, a place where they can express themselves, and self expression is rare today. Have you ever wondered how we ever lived without Michael's Craft Stores, the D.I.Y channel and Home Depot? Do it yourself is certainly self expression, as well as the recent rise of the craft movement, and cuisine. The fact that Americans now know what Arugula is, as well as Mesclun, is a testament to out new found passion of self expression and experience. Entertainment has moved the line of appreciation higher for some, such as foodies, and lower for others, such as plant folk. For now, anyway. But maybe things are changing.

Sure, we live in a sound-bite world with 900 TV channels and still nothing to watch. Sure, we want more and more information but less time to consume it all. Forget newspapers, we get our news from other sources now. Forget about no going out on a Friday night for dinner because our fav gardening program is on, we can just Tivo it and watch it at 6:00 am Sunday morning. And forget about taking three hours on a Saturday to go to a Pelargonium Society meeting, when I can just go to their website at my lunch hour at work and upload some photos I took on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when I had a spare hour. Yes, modern life is even changing the way we enjoy our past time, gardening. I don't know if it is all that bad?

I still love to get plant society journals and quarterlies in the mail, I read them in bed, on a plane, even outside on the deck with a glass of wine. But I also like the convenience of the Internet. Seeing other peoples photos, read about their successes and failures in gardening. I particularly love to waste time multitasking on my laptop ordering bulbs while the TV provides it's mindless background noise. I admit it. I'm OK with it.

So, why did Smith & Hawken fail as a business? One can only speculate. One reason certainly is the economy, surely, but I also have a personal theory, even I have even stopped buying product from them. OK, that shouldn't shut down any business, well, maybe a couple of rare plant nurseries! I think it was that the William Sonoma 'experience' changed, for me, at least it did in the end. Shopping there just felt different, less exciting, less unique. When I went inside one of their stores, I became less excited to buy anything. Increasingly, I would leave empty handed. There was a time that I would be in NYC for International Toy Fair on business, and take my truck so that I could hail home some large wrought iron urns, or some giant Guy Wolff pots. I used to discover things that I could not find anywhere else, things that we're authentic. Then, Smith & Hawken started carrying their own line of faux Guy Wolff, for nearly the same price, but with none of the cache or authenticity. Why would I buy that, When I could go directly to Guy himself to buy the pots at less cost. Or a craft show at RISD to buy a tin planter.

In 2004 when Scott's purchased Smith & Hawken, they hired David Palacek to design their retail experience. Not a bad move, after all, he has already recrafted WIlliams and Sonoma and Pottery Barn. As someone in the design business for a living, I can only speculate that too many cooks we're in this kitchen, and the cooks were not chefs. Maybe he left because he could not change them more, who knows. But ultimately, it is the chef, the designer, the buyer, the retail designer, together, who create the experience.

Chefs as gardeners?
I use this analogy a lot with gardens and gardeners, since I believe that cooking, design, and even gardening, are all creative arts, and, quite similar when you consider that they all rely upon creativity. The world of cuisine had suffered for years in the USA until a few star chefs, emerged, then became stars, brands even. Then things began to change. Emeril,( the brand) is now owned my Martha Stewart ( the brand), not surprising perhaps, but they both represent clear, authentic expressions, and I can only assume that the smart people at MSLO will manage this correctly.Target behaves in the same way. They fostered once garden designer and nursery owner turned TV celeb Sean Conway, who lives near me in Rhode Island, into one of their awesome brands ( the Sean Conway line), and then he moved his brand on to cable TV, PBS and a now a great book with an apparantly successful lifestyle program that I wish I could get in the Boston area, called Cultivating Life ( also a book).

Then comes...TERRAIN..

But then there is TERRAIN, perhaps the best expression of how a gardening brand can evolve is what specialty retailer Urban Outfitters has created. As one of the premiere design-driven companies around, Urban Outfitters has exercised it's creative muscle in some very new and authentic ways. This Philadelphia based fashion and lifestyle company has opened, or shall I say, redesigned a Philadelphia area nursery, into what many feel is the new garden center. Youthful, design centric and stunning, Terrain is catching everyones eye, from publishers to garden geeks like me. Watch how this store will change everything. At least it has for Phily shoppers. Here is the press release from a year ago.

"The traditional atmosphere, the horticultural and land design expertise, and the wide range of plants in the region are enhanced by a new sense of style from Terrain – the people who brought you the design innovation of the Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People stores… Drawing on the work of contemporary designers and traditional style from around the world, Terrain at Styer’s integrates home and garden into a personal living space enhanced by a connection to nature, and respect for our environment and our community.”

This should have been a kick in the butt, to Scott's Miracle Grow, that perhaps the needed a makeover fasssst.

Yes, some Styer;s shoppers complained, and others felt that this was just another Starbuckification scheme taking over the world, but many feel that the store is quite nice. Many bloggers like hiddeninfrance and Oh Joy have posted on the store, and many picks can be seen on Flickr, just search terrain.

From the TERRAIN web site.

SO how successful is Terrain? Well, time will tell, but at the Philadelphia Flower Show, their garden display won Best of Show, and people popularity vote.