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Heirlooms take a hit. August 16, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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The other day, our friend Fritzjambo sent our friend Ben an e-mailed article from The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com). It was by Jane Black and was titled “Snob Appeal.” I could tell from the one-line accompaniment that Fritzjambo was revelling in socking it to all his heirloom-loving friends. That’s because the thrust of Ms. Black’s article was that heirloom tomatoes—despite all the hoopla that surrounds them—just can’t stand up to, of all things, a hybrid ‘Early Girl’ tomato.

Now, just a minute here. Our friend Ben keeps an open mind when it comes to heirlooms and hybrids. No matter how good an heirloom tastes—‘Brandywine’, which Silence Dogood, our chickens, and I all love, springs to mind—if it won’t produce well for us, it’s garden history as far as we’re concerned. We’ll try, try again for a few years, but then we consign it to the compost heap of memory and look for ripe ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes (or whatever) at our local famers’ markets.

If we love an heirloom and it does well for us, on the other hand, we always make room for it, but if we encounter a hybrid we love even more, we make room for it as well. An example is the marvelous ‘Sungold’ hybrid cherry tomato, hands-down the best tomato either of us has ever eaten. (The chickens are witholding comment pending further investigation.) Prior to encountering ‘Sungold’, our favorite small tomatoes were the open-pollinated ‘Yellow Plum’ and ‘Yellow Pear’, and we still love and grow them every year. But now we’d never want to be without ‘Sungold’, or the large, fabulously flavorful ‘Carolina Gold’ and the small, delicious ‘Juliet’ plum tomatoes, both also hybrids. (Even ‘Juliet’ hasn’t managed to knock ‘San Marzano’ from its plum-tomato pedestal, though, at least as far as we’re concerned.)

To give Ms. Black credit where it’s due, she points out in the article that many people (including us) champion heirlooms not just for their appearance and flavor but for their regional adaptations (many were selected because they thrived in very specific conditions, for example, in Siberia), and because they’re open-pollinated so home gardeners can save seed. This helps maintain a broad gene pool for each crop, unlike hybrids, whose parents must be crossed again in every generation to create the uniform results that gardeners and growers expect from, say, an ‘Early Girl’ tomato. And of course said hybrids tend to be patented and thus the property of giant seed companies like (shudder) Monsanto, so God help the poor home gardener should s/he attempt to save even one seed and plant it the following year.

But the bigger picture as far as diversity is concerned is most apparent when something bad happens, like the late blight that’s literally blighting tomato crops all over Pennsylvania this year. Some tomatoes will be more resistant than others, but only if many varieties are grown so the resistant ones can be recognized. (The reason the Irish potato famine happened was that a single variety of potato was grown throughout Ireland, rather than many, and it succumbed to the blight.)

Jane Black also points out the pluses of hybrids: heavy yields, pest and disease resistance, uniform fruits. Typically an ability to grow in a broad range of conditions across the country. Often earlier yields than heirlooms can boast. And she notes some of the drawbacks, such as the sacrifice of flavor for durability so the veggies can withstand the rigors of shipping and storage without bruising. (One she doesn’t mention is the tendency for hybrids to ripen their crop all at once to facilitate machine harvesting, but that can actually be a plus for a home gardener if you’re canning your harvest rather than eating it fresh or freezing it in batches.)

So okay, what’s the bottom line? Heirlooms are great for flavor, diversity, and local adaptation. Hybrids can be great for productivity, pest and disease resistance, and broad adaptation. Heirloom plants and seeds typically are no more expensive than their hybrid counterparts, and once you have them, you can save your own seeds from that point on if you wish and even select desirable traits and start your own seed strain. To get the plants you’re trying to grow, you must purchase hybrid seeds or plants year after year. However, if you don’t grow your own and instead rely on buying your produce, heirlooms typically bring premium prices at the grocery and farmers’ markets in contrast with the ubiquitous round, red hybrid tomatoes. And as Ms. Black implies, those round, red tomatoes often taste great, as long as they’re locally grown and picked ripe in season.

Heirloom or hybrid? Our friend Ben suggests that you skip the “snob appeal” and its opposite and grow some of each, as we do, to enjoy the best of both worlds. But, um, ‘Early Girl’? If this is really the world’s best-tasting tomato, I’d love to hear some confirmation from some of you!


Late blight comes early. July 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Ugh. Late blight has struck Pennsylvania’s tomatoes at the exact moment when the crop is ripening. This airborne fungal disease usually arrives in the fall, when the plants have had plenty of time to produce, but this year’s wet, cool summer has inspired it to show up at the beginning of tomato season rather than the end. It’s affected so many of the area’s plants—killing them in a matter of days—that it made front-page news in our local paper this week.

And no wonder. What’s summer without corn, tomatoes, and melons? Yikes! Our friend Ben has seen tomatoes going for over $2 apiece at local farm stands, a sure sign of a shortage.

Once late blight strikes, there’s not a lot you can do, since the airborne fungal spores that spread the disease can travel 60 miles. (Yes, that’s 60, not 6.) You’ll know if your tomatoes are afflicted because the foliage will develop brown, greasy-looking spots (technically “lesions”), and then the leaves will wither and fall off. Next thing you know, you have a dead, naked plant. And then a bunch of dead, naked plants.

There are a few things you can do to try to prevent a late blight strike, like spacing your tomato plants out in a well-drained, sunny, breezy spot so lots of air can circulate around them. Or, say, moving to Antarctica where nobody will be growing potentially infected tomato plants within 60 miles of your home. Our friend Ben was feeling fairly smug about the tomatoes Silence Dogood and I are growing here at Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, since I couldn’t see anyone else growing tomatoes on our road. But then I remembered the sickly tomato plant hanging out the bottom of a plastic container on a porch at the end of the road. Clearly, that plant doesn’t feel too well. Thinking about that tomato plant, our friend Ben doesn’t feel too well myself.

What to do if blight strikes your tomatoes?  If you’re chemically inclined, you could blast away with fungicides, and much good may it do you. But if you’re lifelong organic gardeners like Silence and our friend Ben, your best bet is to keep a sharp eye on your plants and immediately remove any that display signs of infection.

Prior to reading the newspaper article, our friend Ben would have been inclined to just pull up and trash any infected plants (spores live a very long time, so you never want to compost an infected plant). Huge mistake. Pulling up a plant shakes loose bazillion spores, which can then live on in your soil for years. Instead, the Penn State Master Gardeners proposed a novel solution: Put a black plastic garbage bag over the plant, then cut it off at the base and tie the bag shut. They suggest leaving the bag in the sun to “cook” the spores for a while before trashing it. If only there were any sun, this would doubtless be good advice. In the absence of sun, our friend Ben suggests trashing the bag immediately; it can always “cook” in the garbage can should the sun happen to come out.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we’ve actually been getting a great crop of tomatoes this year, our best ever. So far, anyway. (That’s because the rain has been doing our watering for us. When you have to haul water in milk jugs to the back forty to water your veggies, they never get enough. Trust me on this.) But now, of course, I’m terrorized and am checking the plants every morning for signs of impending doom.

With tomatoes in containers and in one raised bed, however, we can never grow as many as we want, so we have to buy local tomatoes to supplement our crop. It’s starting to look like a very expensive year.