Variety is the Spice of Your Garden

 

On many occasions, when people talk to me about their gardens, they will often ask me about why a certain vegetable crop they planted failed to perform as expected. Perhaps their tomato plants produced little or no fruit, or their cucumbers had a white powdery growth, or their beans failed to grow at all. When I’m asked why they didn’t do well or what they did wrong, I’ll often ask them what cultivar or variety they planted. And nine times out of ten, the answer I get is some variation of, “Oh I don’t know what variety they were; they were just tomato plants I bought at Wal-Mart.” And therein lies the problem, or at least a good portion of the problem.

Allow me to ask a question. When you need to purchase personal transportation, do you go out and buy “a car?” When you need a reliable communication device, do you purchase “a cell phone?” When you need a machine to automatically clean your dishes, do you buy “a dishwasher?” The answer to all three questions is no. You don’t buy a car; you buy a Ford or a Toyota. You don’t buy a cell phone; you purchase an iPhone or an Android. And you don’t shell out your hard earned money for a dishwasher; you buy a Maytag or a Whirlpool. And furthermore, you carefully research your purchases before you dole out your dollars to make sure you are getting something that has all the features you need with a quality that will last at a price you can afford. And why? So that you can be assured that you can drive safely, communicate effectively, and get your dishes sparkling clean. Now if you’re going to go through all this trouble with machines, wouldn’t you want to put at least this much effort into the food you grow and eat?

Tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and other garden vegetables all have what are known as cultivars. These are different genetic versions of the same plant. These different genetic variations result in different colors, shapes, sizes, hardiness, flavor, and disease resistance within the same type of plant.

For example, a Sweet 100 is a small cherry tomato, while a Big Zac is large, meaty Beefsteak tomato. A Thumbelina is a small, round, yellow carrot, while a Purple Dragon is a large, long, purple carrot. A Thumbelina and a Purple Dragon are both a carrot, yet they’re quite different from one another.

Carrots

So why does this matter? Because just as you want to choose a brand of car that’s suits your lifestyle and driving habits and preferences, you want to choose cultivars of garden vegetables that will have the color and flavor that best delights your eye and tickles your taste buds, resistance to specific diseases (if you’ve had past problems with those diseases), and overall, the greatest chance of success in your garden.

Have your tomatoes produced poorly due to late blight? Then you’ll want to plant a cultivar such as Defiant, which is specifically bred to resist late blight. Do you want to grow a drought-resistant flour corn? Hopi Blue will meet your needs. Do you have hard blocky soil? Planting a standard carrot will result in forked, misshapen roots. Thumbelina carrots produce small, orange, almost round roots that are perfect for firmer soils.

The point of all of this is that if you want a garden that yields large amounts of tasty, mouth-watering vegetables, you’ll have to do a little more than throw some seeds into the dirt, water them, and hope for the best. You’ve got to put as much thought and care into buying your seeds and plants as you would into buying a car or a dishwasher. You’ve got to decide what vegetables you want to plant and then find the cultivars of those vegetables that have the traits that will best meet your wants and needs.

Doing this will most definitely improve your odds of having a successful, high-yielding garden.

Support Your Local Farmers Market

Farmers Market

 

They show up every spring; they’re here through September or October; then they’re gone for the year. Nearly every town and city has one, and they are growing in popularity. I’m speaking, of course, about farmers markets, and, next to your own garden, they are one of the best sources of fresh fruits and vegetables you’ll find. In addition, you’ll find vendors that sell baked goods, meats, soaps, spices, eggs, and honey straight from the hive. Some even have live music provided by local talent.

 
Most farmers market vendors accept cash only as payment for their wares, but some will accept credit and debit cards. A few farmers markets are set up to accept food stamps and their equivalents — a wonderful way to provide good nutrition to lower income people.

 
But just as a movie theater needs butts in seats to survive, farmers markets need bodies in their booths to stay alive. So I encourage everyone to patronize their local farmers market. Yes, we should all plant our gardens and grow our own food. I encourage that; that’s what I’m all about. But a garden is merely a means to a goal — providing a consistent supply of fresh produce that hasn’t been tainted with potentially harmful chemicals. Farmers markets can be another means of helping you to reach that goal. Though you may have your own garden, your space for it is limited. As much as we may like to, we gardeners cannot grow everything. Furthermore, due to city ordinances, many of us cannot raise our own chickens or keep our own beehives. Farmers markets, with their wide array of fresh food offerings, can provide for us the items that we cannot produce for ourselves. And when you buy from a farmers market, you’re helping small family farm operations to stay in business.

 
So get yourself down to your local farmers market and avail yourself of all the wonderful fresh offerings. It’s good for you, good for your family, good for farmers, good for the economy, and good for America!

 
I’m The Garden Troubadour, and I approved this message!

The Heartbreak of Blossom End Rot

You started your tomato seeds in March, planted them in the ground in May, and you’ve been taking good care of them since. You water, fertilize, and weed with care, or so you think. And finally, all your hard work is beginning to pay off. Your beautiful plants are producing colorful and beautiful tomatoes, and visions of tasty salads and tangy salsas are dancing in your head.

And then, it happens. You go to pick some of those beautiful fruits and you discover, to your horror, that several of them have hard, ugly, sunken, misshapen, gnarled black spots on their bottom halves, and your tomato dreams dissolve into nightmares. “What happened,” you cry.”Where did I go wrong!?”

Blossom End Rot

What happened is a condition known as blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is caused by a deficiency of calcium within the plant tissues. This often happens when plants grow rapidly during a wet spring and then fruit set occurs when the weather turns dry. The plants are rapidly absorbing calcium which suddenly runs out. The fruit damage occurs when the fruits are first beginning to mature, and by the time the fruits become full size, the water-soaked, black, leathery spots become evident.

Several factors can cause this calcium deficiency. Fluctuating soil moisture levels, too much nitrogen in the soil (often caused by over-fertilization), root damage due to overzealous cultivation, cold soil, soil with too high a pH, and soils with excess salts.

So how can you prevent this awful condition? In several ways.

1. Make sure you are providing the soil with a consistent level of moisture. If rain has been in short supply, make sure that you water your tomatoes deeply (to a depth of about six inches) at least once or twice per week.

2. Mulch around your tomatoes to prevent moisture loss. As a side benefit, mulch will also suppress the growth of many weed species, which will reduce the amount of time and effort you have to spend weeding.

3. Spray the plants with a calcium supplement such as Tomato Rot-Stop by Bonide® or Enz-Rot™ Blossom End Rot Concentrate Spray.

4. Make sure the soil has warmed up in the spring before you put your tomatoes in the ground.

5. Go easy on the fertilizer, especially high nitrogen fertilizers such as manure. Use fertilizers that are lower in nitrogen, but higher in phosphorous.

6. Keep records of your garden. You may discover that certain tomato cultivars tend to be more susceptible than others to blossom end rot. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to plant the least susceptible varieties.

Follow the above advice, and you will be able to say, in the words of Lady Macbeth, “Out, out damned spot!”

Flowers Too Soon = Yield Too Little

You go to your local nursery or big box store and purchase some tomato plants. They’re healthy and strong, and oh look — they already have a few flowers on them or maybe even a a couple of baby tomatoes. Terrific, you think. They’re already starting to produce. What a great crop I’m going to have this year!

 
Sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m gazing into my tomato crystal ball, and I see your future tomato crop consisting of exactly those few tomatoes you see today — and no more. But it’s not too late, my friend. You can change this dismal prediction. All you have to do is remove those few flowers and tomatoes.

Crystal Ball Gaze
“What,” you roar loudly, “are you mad!? Yank the few flowers and tomatoes off my babies? Then I won’t get anything!” On the contrary, oh ye of little faith. Removing those early flowers and fruits is the key to your bumper crop. Allow me to explain.

A plant’s main goal in life is to continue its species. So they will always put reproductive growth ahead of vegetative growth. Your tomato plants will put all their energy from their leaves into those few flowers and tomatoes that exist now. As a result you will get a few fruits on your plants.

The operative word here is “few” — as in few leaves and few tomatoes. Your small plants don’t really have a lot of leaves right now. That translates into very little energy to put into producing a few large tomatoes. Reproduction is stressful to a plant, and can take days or weeks to accomplish. A plant needs all the energy and time they can muster to succeed and not exhaust themselves in the process. A large plant has plenty of leaves, and thus has plenty of energy to put into tomatoes. A small plant, however, does not. Your tomatoes will waste the precious little time and energy it has to give you those few fruits. Picking them will then signal to the plant that it’s time to start producing vegetation again. But guess what? It’s now August. How much time does that plant have left to produce more leaves and more fruit? Mighty little!

Pulling of flowers and small fruits while the plant is still small, however, forces that plant to produce more vegetation. Then when the plant is bigger, it will have all the vegetation and energy it needs to produce that bumper crop. And that’s what you’ve been looking for!

 
I know it sounds counterproductive, but sacrificing a few flowers now, will lead to more tomatoes later. So go ahead! Pull those flowers off of those tomato youngsters! You’ll thank me for it later!

Bumper_Crop_Grafted_Tomatoes_default

Song of the Gardener

Singing in the Garden

Throughout history, people have written songs about their work. Coal miners have songs such as Dark As a Dungeon and Nine Pound Hammer. Railroad construction workers had songs like Drill Ye Tarriers. And, of course, lumberjacks, railroad engineers, and sailors have an abundance of songs about them and their work.

 
But what about us gardeners? Are their any songs for us? Well, not really. After all, coal mining, railroad building, lumberjacking, railroad engineering, and sailing are major industries that helped build this nation as well as many other nations. These professions also involved hard, dangerous, back breaking labor that on many occasions severely injured or killed the laborers. The feelings of horror, sadness, and despair generated by these tragic deaths and injuries has moved many a man and woman to put their feelings into poetry or song.

 
Since very few have ever been severely maimed or killed from gardening (aside from a drummer in the movie This is Spinal Tap), any feelings gardening may have generated probably haven’t been strong enough to produce a lot of memorable songs that have woven themselves into the fabric of our history. Still, that’s not to say that absolutely no songs about gardening exist whatsoever. They are out there; you just have to find them. Allow me to help.

 
One of the first ones that come to mind is The Garden Song by David Mallet.

Inch by inch
Row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch
Row by row
Someone bless these seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
Til the rain comes tumbling down

 
For the unsuccessful gardeners, there is a parody called The Anti Garden Song by Eric Kilburn

Slug by slug
Weed by weed
My garden’s really got me teed
All the insects love to feed
On my tomato plants
Sunburned face
Skinned-up knees
My kitchen’s choked with zucchinis
I’m shopping at the A&P next time I get the chance

 

One of my personal favorites is Gardening by Dillon Bustin, from off of his Almanac album (sorry, no video for that one.).

 
Oh my friends, it’s springtime again
Buds are swelling on every limb
The peepers do call; small birds do sing
And my thoughts return to gardening

 
Do you grow your own tomatoes? Then especially for you, there’s Home Grown Tomatoes by Guy Clark

Ain’t nothin’ in the world that I like better
Than bacon & lettuce & homegrown tomatoes
Up in the mornin’ out in the garden
Get you a ripe one don’t get a hard one
Plant ’em in the spring eat ’em in the summer
All winter with out ’em’s a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin’ & diggin’
Every time I go out & pick me a big one

 
The above is a small sampling of songs about gardening. Since it’s only natural to hum, whistle, or sing while you work, why not learn a song or two about gardening that you can sing to while away the hours while you’re digging, planting, watering, and weeding? And if you don’t like the selection that’s out there, then I encourage you to get creative and write your own. Who knows — you may create a hit. Then you can use the royalties to pay for your seeds and supplies.

 

Do you have any favorite songs about gardening that you like to sing? Please share; I’d love to know about them.

Vegetables of a Different Color

Tomatoes are red. Carrots are orange. Cauliflower is white. And corn is yellow. And so it shall always be.

Not true. Well, at least not entirely true. Yes, most of the time, the aforementioned vegetables are the aforementioned colors. But not always. Did you know that there are purple carrots? Yellow cauliflower. Black tomatoes. And corn that is a veritable rainbow.

Purple Dragon Carrot Cheddar CauliflowerBlack Krim Tomato  Rainbow Corn

Wait, is something wrong with these vegetables? Not at all. But they may seem strange to some of us who are used to buying our fruits and vegetables from supermarkets. Supermarkets have to offer produce that appeals to the masses. They may not make much money selling fruits and veggies that are anything other than the color that the mass population expects.

We humans have it in our heads that food has to be a certain color, or else something is wrong with it. Eggs have to be a golden yellow. Butter also has to be yellow. That’s why poultry producers feed their chickens corn gluten meal to give the eggs that bright yellow. It’s also why color is added to butter.

I once used this mindset to play a prank on two of my college roommates. I waited for a day when both were away from our apartment. Then I grabbed my food coloring, opened the refrigerator door, and went to work. By the time I had finished, we had purple pickles, blue Thousand Island dressing, mustard that looked like guacamole, and my personal favorite — the green milk.

Green Milk

There was absolutely nothing wrong with these foods. They were still the same as before I “enhanced” them. But my roommates refused to touch them. I, on the other hand, had lots of fun pouring myself a glass of green milk, getting my roommates’ attention, yelling, “Bottoms up!” and drinking it down.

The point of all of this is that vegetables of a different color offer you the chance to be creative with your crops. An orange carrot is an orange carrot. But if you serve purple carrots at your next dinner party, I guarantee that your guests will remember that for a long time to come.

So go ahead and be creative. Step outside the color box and try something different. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pour myself a nice tall glass of green milk. Bottoms up!

Drowning in Zucchini; Flooded With Tomatoes

All of your hard work has paid off! All of the sweating, digging, and back-breaking work is producing dividends in the form of tempting mouth-pleasing tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, etc. But holy cow, you didn’t expect dividends like this! Your kitchen counter is overflowing with zucchini; your kitchen table is piled high and wide with tomatoes, and if you add one more cucumber to your refrigerator, it will explode. What in the world are you going to do with all of this?

DSCN7100 Zucchini Excess DSCN8102

DSCN5234 DSCN5890

Well, giving the excess to family and friends is usually the first solution. Most people love fresh fruits and vegetables (especially when they don’t have to pay for it) and are more than happy to take some of the excess off your hands. But this solution does have its limits, and eventually your friends and family will start barring the door when they see you coming with an armload of zucchini.

A second solution is to preserve the excess through canning, freezing, drying, or winter storage. Properly preserved produce can be stored away in your kitchen or basement. Then when you have a hankering for beans, carrots, or any other produce, you won’t have to make a special trip to the grocery store (perhaps in the snow?) to spend your hard earned money on inferior produce. Your own supply will be right there at your fingertips — and it will look and taste a whole lot better too.

Third, you can use the surplus harvest in a wide variety of recipes. Chutneys, salsas, salads, breads — the possibilities are endless. Don’t have any recipes? Check a cookbook out of your local library or download some recipes from the internet. You can prepare the recipes early in the week and have plenty of leftovers for the rest of the week. Or you can bring the finished products to your next dinner party. While your friends are oohing and ahhing over what a tasty dish you’ve prepared, you can gain additional brownie points when you tell them that you not only prepared the dish from scratch, you also grew the vegetables yourself.

Lastly, you can always bring the excess to a food bank. Believe me, they can never have too much fresh produce, and they will be more than happy to take the excess off your hands. It’s a wonderful way to give away your surplus yield and also help those in your community who have fallen on hard times.

Having more produce than you can use is an excellent problem to have! Best of all it’s a problem with many wonderful solutions. So if your garden fruit and vegetable cup runneth over, then implement one of these solutions today.

Danger in the Garden

Poison Garden

“You will be interested to learn what charming vegetation grows on the surface of the globe.” — Tiger Tanaka to James Bond in Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice.”

In Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, the evil Dr. Shatterhand is causing headaches to the Japanese government with his “garden of death” — a castle and grounds filled with all manner of poisonous vegetation which the doctor has planted.  His garden has become a mecca for those citizens looking to commit suicide, and Japan’s secret service recruits James Bond to “enter this castle of death and slay the dragon within.”

Such is the stuff of adventure novels, but bears little resemblance to real life.  I say “little,” because most of us lack the time, money, and the insanity to plant a garden filled with strictly noxious plants for nefarious purposes.  However, many of the common ordinary plants that we don’t think of as deadly may contain, in part or all of the plant, toxins that, if consumed, may cause illness or in some cases even death.  Here are a few examples.

Asparagus – Eating the raw shoots when they’re young and green, can cause dermatitis. The berries that grow on the feathery leaves of the mature plant are also toxic. Eating more than a handful can cause nausea and vomiting.

Castor Bean — From the seed we get ricin, a highly toxic substance.  Eight beans is enough to kill an adult human.

Foxglove — Ingestion of the leaves can cause irregular heartbeat and pulse — enough to kill.

Hyacinth, Narcissus, and Daffodil — Eating the bulbs can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea — and even death.

Kidney beans – Kidney beans contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin. A few raw beans will make the consumer violently ill; more than a handful can kill. To inactivate the toxin, beans must be boiled for at least ten minutes before being used raw in salads, cooked with other foods in a slow cooker.

Lima beans – Lima beans should never be eaten raw, as the raw beans contain the toxin limarin. A mere handful of raw lima beans can make someone violently ill.

Potato – The leaves, stems, and tubers that have turned green contain solanine. Solanine can cause gastric distress, headache, delirium, shock, paralysis, and occasionally death.

Rhubarb — The leaves contain oxalic acid.  Eating the leaves can cause convulsions, coma, or death.

Tomato — Leaves contain tomatine, an alkaloid that can cause gastrointestinal upset.  Tomato leaves can be used to make a homemade insecticide.

While most adults are smart enough not to consume stems and leaves from these aforementioned plants, a small child or pet may not know better.  And one mistake could be the last.  So let’s be safe in the garden and keep pets and children away from these and other potentially deadly plants.