Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My current winning tomato variety - Siletz

Siletz tomatoes that lack pollination also lack seeds
This year all the tomato plants in my temporary greenhouse are from the variety Siletz. I usually diversify in the varieties I plant but I was so impressed with the performance of this cultivar last season that I only planted seeds of this variety. I'm still planning on starting a couple other varieties soon. Siletz was the only variety that could even compare to Celebrity in production.  And since the taste of the tomato fruit is the least of concerns for Tucson’s tomato gardeners I am willing to have food production be pretty high on my priority list. Don’t get me wrong – a tomato’s taste is important but without shadecloth most tomatoes are lucky to produce a few fruit in Arizona’s summer heat. Many varieties that are advertized as producing an abundant crop of large tomatoes just barely present 1 or 2 cherry-sized tomatoes per plant. When planting anything in my garden I first prioritize what I want. The three things that matter most to me are that the plant is open-pollinated, that it can grow in my climate, and that it produces lots of food. Growing in my climate requires that the plant exhibit vigor, disease resistance, heat resistance, and large fluctuations in temperature.

Although some may scoff at the taste of a Celebrity Hybrid tomato, none will laugh when you compare a tomato plant with 25-50 large fruit on the vine with what many heirloom plants produce in my climate - almost nothing. For this reason some gardeners who try Celebrity may choose not to go back to heirloom tomatoes. This is also the reason that some gardeners who do not grow hybrids make an exception for Celebrity. So why have I been growing a hybrid tomato in my heirloom garden? Because I use Celebrity as a standard to compare my other tomatoes to rather than as a long term solution to my food production needs. It is unfortunate that, within my garden, Slietz has been the only other cultivar that has even compared to Celebrity in fruit production. Both varieties possess a semi-determinate growth habit. Siletz's parthenocarpic nature also allows it to pump out fruit in the middle of the summer when most other varieties begin waning. This last year I planted most of my tomato varieties in a trench (lowered bed gardening) in the middle of my yard and provided west side shade from a bean trellis. The lowered bed method is also used by the Community Gardens of Tucson and is very useful for southwestern gardening. My seed source for this Siletz was Territorial Seed Company.

End of Season Roots of Siletz, Celebrity, and Ozark Pink Tomatoes.

Last crop of the season ready for paper bags. No other varieties compared.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Tomato Growth Patterns

It seems that some of the best tomato varieties I have trialed here in Tucson are those that continue to grow new branches despite having a shorter growth pattern. These tomatoes are often called semi-determinate because they exhibit the growth pattern of an indeterminate without having the size of one.

The wild tomato variety, L. hirsutum exhibits growth size based on pot size.
Determinate tomatoes usually grow short bush-type plants and have a crop that ripens all at once. This is very helpful with a farmer who harvests all his nearly ripe green tomatoes with a tractor. Meanwhile, indeterminate tomatoes are characterized by tall growing tomato plants that can often grow as tall as a small tree and often require support to keep them from rambling. Determinates tend to do very well in pots while indeterminates tend reach their full potential when grown in the ground. Gardenweb has a good explanation of both determinate and indeterminate tomato plants while Sandy’s Garden has a good explanation of what a semi-determinate tomato plant is You can use the tomato's growth habit to your advantage if you factor it into the positioning of the plants in your garden.

On Temporary Greenhouses

My temporary greenhouse in December
Creating a temporary greenhouse can be quite rewarding as long as you can keep it sanitary and disease-free. I have only experienced the joy of growing normally warm season produce in the greenhouse once. There was a direct correlation between the growing of that tomato crop and my garden contracting Septoria. So since then I decided to minimize my exposure to disease by putting all my tomato transplants in pots. Though I have been doing well in starting tomatoes I am still experimenting with how to get an early start to my cucumbers. I have almost given up on that though – I can only experiment with winter planting so many times before I need to buy more seed.

Regular cucumbers have a tough time taking any cold. It seems that the slightest frost will wilt a cucumber seedling while tomato plants are a little more forgiving to cool weather.

A good location is a very important factor in determining where to place a greenhouse. A place that faces south and receives a lot of direct sunlight is very important. It also helps if you can position your greenhouse to receive radiant heat from nearby structures. That way your greenhouse area can be more resilient to drops in temperature. My greenhouse consists of a sheet of 5 mil plastic that has been placed diagonally against a south-facing block wall that receives full sun exposure. By placing plastic along the upper part on top of the block wall (with blocks securing the plastic on top) and placing the lower part of the plastic along the garden’s edge (with blocks securing the plastic on the bottom) I am able to secure most of the greenhouse. I can continue securing the plastic on the west perimeter of the garden with blocks though I secure the eastern part of the plastic with a piece of rebarb that is rolled up in the plastic to secure it from the wind because the eastern portion of the garden continues beyond my greenhouse. I made a skeleton of wood pieces that lie diagonally from below the lip of the block wall to the edge of my winter garden. These wood pieces help keep the plastic up and keep it from moving around so much in the advent of a mild winter windstorm. Besides the radiant heat from the south-facing block wall, I place clear plastic bottles inside the greenhouse to soak up the sunlight and keep the temperature within the greenhouse as moderate as possible. Water is very good at moderating temperature, though I find that a clear plastic bottle absorbs heat much better than the opaque plastic bottle does.
The inside of my greenhouse with waterbottles and tomato transplants in sunken pots.

My 2011 Winter Garden

The Kids' Winter Garden in the Foreground
For those of you who have not had a winter garden in the past let me tell you – it can be wonderful. Some people in Tucson only plant winter gardens because they do not want the hassle and maintenance that summer gardens often demand. Though growing may happen at a slower pace, the watering required is so much less than required during the summer in any arid landscape. Because most insects do not do well in freezing temperatures, if you remove leaf debris you should be able to keep most bugs absent of your crop.  The major setback associated with winter gardening is waiting for plants to get big enough to harvest. This fall I planted mustard greens (for my soil fumigation experiment), Imperial Star artichoke, Little Marvel peas, radish, Purple Dragon carrots (for seed), Chartwell Romaine lettuce, Viroflay spinach.

I try to only plant Patented varieties of vegetables, such as the Imperial Star Artichoke, after the patent has run out. That way, I have full rights every part of the plant I produce. I currently also have some tomato starts in with my winter crop in my winter garden greenhouse.

The rest of my winter garden that is not in the greenhouse.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Developing my Philosophy of Gardening

Scientific Gardener with Purple Dragon Carrot
I have been reading a really good book recently called The Resilient Gardener. The author gives a good perspective on what gardening should be about, or at least gives a good perspective on the importance of gardening in the times in which we live. Here’s the quote: “What is critical isn’t ownership of land so much as the knowledge and skills to use it. When and if the time comes that people in your region need more local food production in order to survive, if you have the knowledge, seeds, and tools, people will make the land available. Up until then, you only need enough land to pay and learn on, and to produce what you care most about and what you most enjoy.” –The Resilient Gardner Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. by Carol Deppe. The reason I agree with this way of thinking because what matters more than anything else in gardening is having the knowledge and the seeds. Everything else can - and will often - change.

Hahms Gelbe Tomato

A Hahms Gelbe Tomato Bush 3" High with new Blossoms
What can I say concerning the Hahms Gelbe Tomato? Well – for one thing it’s small. Not only is this cultivar a determinate tomato plant (a shorter variety with tomatoes that usually mature at around the same time) - it is also a dwarf tomato variety. It grows to be about a foot tall at most. It fills up with blossoms, then yellow fruit that covers the plant. Resist the temptation to eat the bright yellow fruit! The bright yellow ones taste like unripe green tomatoes. Wait until they turn golden yellow/orange. Then the fruit is at its most delicious state. This is a great variety for indoors – as long as you have a windowsill or a plant light to use. For those living in Arizona – where the temps are too high or too low – this is a wonderful way to get your tomato fix without dealing with all the problems related to the fact that tomatoes don’t do too well in our climate. I have been giving them away as presents to co-workers. There’s nothing like a tomato plant to improve relationships – especially in a region where most people have not tasted on-the-vine tomatoes in years.

A Hahms Gelbe Tomato Bush with Yellow Globes

These were unripe- It's worth it to wait till they turn darker!

Hahms Gelbe do well indoors with lots of light

Another Picture just for Fun

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tromboncino – Not perfect, but very good

I enjoy growing butternut squash for the dual purpose of being able to use them as both a winter squash and as a summer squash. Often, during the summer, we will go north for a little while to come home on a day when we just can’t get to shopping. This is when I enjoy going out to the garden and getting the family something to eat. In order to do this I need to know that I can use my food whenever I am ready for it. That is where butternut squash varieties excel – specifically Tromboncino.

The Tromboncino keeps a very nice flesh texture throughout its growth from a small summer squash to a very long winter squash. It is fun to see how long it will become and to see how it will curve before it hardens up. Being a butternut variety the plant vigor and disease resistance are good with this variety - especially with reguards to the Squash Vine Borer. However, if you have any kind of sap-sucking creature in your yard, it may make it difficult for the female flowers to set fruit. Apparently the bugs like it as much as people do. Additionally, if the fruit sets under direct sun while the temperature is very high it may have difficulty setting before the sun shrivels the blossom. Other than that it is an all-around good variety and top rated among many gardeners.

A winter Tromboncino butternut squash is very tasty

As an additional note, since this is an Italian variety, the Italians have taken the growing of their squash to a science. Here is a very good Italian webpage with very helpful information (should you want to translate it) about the Tromboncino squash.

Female Tromboncino Squash Blossom

Cooking Chinese Long or Asparagus Beans

Chinese Long Beans on a Platter

You may not mind the “overcooked asparagus” taste produced while steaming them or the hard slippery texture of the skins when sautéing, but as for me I prefer a taste similar to the New England varieties of green beans bought from the store. In order to achieve this palatable taste and texture you must blanch the beans. To do so, start with a big pot of water with the water boiling. Pour in a generous helping of salt (at least ¼ cup per gallon). Once the salt has dissolved in the water, dump the uncut beans in the water and cover for 5 minutes. No more, no less. They should now be very dark green and tender, but not too soft. Use a colander to drain saltwater brine from the beans and immediately rinse with cold water or soak in ice water until beans return to room temperature. Then cut the beans. You can then add some butter in a pan and stir them around until the butter melts or you can just freeze them in bags for later use.

Chinese Long Beans

Chinese Long Beans are very prolific
There are quite a few beans that can really take the heat, but there are not a whole lot that can take the heat, are not eaten by lace bugs, and are very disease resistant. Enter the Chinese Long Bean, or Asparagus Bean. This native of Asia is resistant to most anything thrown at it. There do seem to be some forms of rust it can contract and the same weevil that bores through mesquite pods will also attack these beans. Otherwise you are looking at a constant supply of beans able to pump out enough beans to feed 1 person on 2-3 feet of 6’ tall bean plants. Though this bean can cross-pollinate with the black-eyed pea, or cowpea, the method of pollination I see most is from ants visiting the flowers. The beans secrete a nectar that attracts the ants who either protect the beans, pollinate the beans or both. You can expect to have to shake off a couple ants during bean harvest. Expect to have to harvest every 2-3 days. I judge when I need to harvest based on the thickness of the bean. About the thickness of a #2 pencil is just right. In short, the asparagus bean is a disease resistant and heat loving bean that produces heavily, but requires some extra work in one specific area. This area is the most important part for those who grow for food– figuring out how to cook them! After several years of asking around and researching I finally figured out  - and it was well worth it!

Chinese Long Beans Take over even in 110 degree temperatures

Monday, December 12, 2011

Rounde de Nice

A smaller squash on the left and a larger one on the right
I used to enjoy growing zucchini. However, once I had lost multiple zucchini plants to the notorious Squash Vine Borer I decided to find a zucchini variety that was both compact and could resist the borer. For those of you not acquainted with this beautiful moth, it lays eggs on the squash stem, the larvae chew into the stem, then the larvae eat the stem of the plant from the inside-out. After doing some research I found a variety called Rounde de Nice that I could still grow on a bush and just might resist the vine borer. When I was visiting my dad in California several years ago he gave me some very old seed. I propagated a few plants, grew it out, then sent him some new seed. I found that though this variety is not “bullet proof” it produces a steady crop of zucchini that is very tasty. After harvesting some of this squash for seed I inspected the vine and found that the vine was attacked after all. What saved the plant was a that the stem re-rooted as the plant grew. This is a trait that is found mostly in the C. Moschata (butternut varieties of squash) but rarely in the C. Pepo (zucchini varieties of squash). Overall I was very impressed with the quality of this variety as a summer squash. 

Rounde de Nice can second as a Jack-O-Lantern - if you can cut through the shell.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Some thoughts about Tomato Diseases

Overwintered Tomatoes with Disease

I think it is completely ridiculous that we (gardeners and consumers) grow a plant that has so many problems and is prone to so many diseases. Although cucumbers have their fair share of diseases tomatoes take the cake. Cornell University maintains a good website to identify some of the major tomato and cucumber diseases. As if the tomato plant’s tolerance of only “mild” weather wasn’t enough, you cannot even plant them in the same soil for more than one season without getting diseases. My first major mistake with tomato diseases came in the early summer of 2010 when the compost that was my summer garden was not ready for planting in. So I decided to plant tomatoes in my winter garden that had just overwintered a crop of dying plants. I had been composting the old tomato waist and I’m sure some of the compost got on the plants. To make matters worse, I planted my tomatoes right next to a south facing wall. By the time June came around the radiant heat was making it so that I had to water several times a day. For those of you reading this – this is a perfect storm for any tomato disease – high temperature, diseased plants being composted, new plants being brought in, and lots and lots of water. Septoria spreads like wildfire. In my case, little black spots showed up on the bottom leaves then the leaves began to die. The fruit began cankering only where it touched the ground and sometimes not just when it touched the ground. Each tomato variety I had worked so hard to nurture through the winter began dropping its brown dried-up leaves from the bottom up. I later solarized but even solarizing only diminished the disease. It was a gardener’s nightmare! I have since learned a whole lot more about growing tomatoes – especially here in the desert.

Septoria - The king of Diseases - working its way up

In my opinion, Septoria is the king of the vegetable diseases. Yes – even worse than cucumber mosaic virus. It affects so many different crops and is transmitted through infected seed. Although I had some slight indications of it as recently as this last summer I believe that my mustard green crop will help me to wipe out this infection once and for all!

So – what is the proper way to take care of tomatoes once you notice disease? Remove any form of infection and throw it out. Do not compost, do not touch any other plant until you wash your hands and wash whatever touched the infected plant. Once you notice a plant really getting an infection you could go out and buy some forms of disease control but it is often better just to pull it out (roots and all) and throw it out. This is the shame of growing tomatoes – that they have been bred to produce delicious fruit while being so susceptible to disease.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

2011 Sweet Potato Harvest

Last year I started my sweet potatoes very early. I bought the potatoes from a local grocery store and had the slips growing in the ground between April and May. They slowly took off and grew all over. Although I did add some fertilizer to the plants over time and the fertilizer was low in nitrogen the vines took over. Pretty soon they took up more space then everything else. While selling some cucumbers at the farmers market I was approached by an individual who was interested in buying my sweet potato crop. About a week later I excitedly turned over my soil to discover only half a dozen very small tubers. In contrast, this year I bought one sweet potato that was grown locally. I began planting the slips later between June and July. No fertilizer was added and very little was done to take care of them. However, this years harvest was much better I still need to buy a scale but I estimate the weight at least 5 pounds if not more.

My 2010 Sweet Potatoes planted in late April -  Poor crop

2011 sweet potato patch hiding behind squash & beans

My 2011 crop from 1 potato planted very late.

Meeting with an Heirloom Star

Last Christmas my wife did something wonderful and enabled me to go to California to visit my family. While I was there I went to Baker Creek’s “seed bank”, an old bank in Petaluma that was converted to a retail storefront for Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. When there I happened to meet and get a picture with Jere Gettle. He is the gentleman who started and owns the expanding business. He seemed to be a pretty nice ordinary guy. I asked him his opinion of several asparagus bean (Chinese Long Bean) varieties. I also asked him about possible shade options for my tomatoes. He was at a loss as to what could grow tall enough. Then I asked him if he knew of anyone who sold Jerusalem Artichokes (Sunchokes) in the area. Another employee, I think Paul, told me of a local farm that carried them. At that, my family and I bought the seeds I selected and we headed off to get some Sunchokes. And that is my claim to fame in the world of Heirlooms.

Me and Jere Gettle at The Petaluma Seed Bank

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Local Climate

Here in Tucson there are two things you can count on: heat in June and cold in January. Water is also a concern here because of the high mineral content of the tap water and rainfall can be unpredictable. A 50% chance of rain in July means that 50% of the city of Tucson will get rained on while a 50% chance of rain in December means that all of Tucson will receive rain 50% of the time. Some believe that we have more than the four seasons than more moderate climates experience. If that is true, then I would have to say that we have 5 seasons that overlap somewhat: hot, cold, wet, dry, and windy. Because we live in a desert we cannot count on having a pleasant fall or spring. Over the course of a few weeks in “the spring” it can go from the 60s and low 70s to the mid 90s while in “the fall” it may go from 90 and 100 to the low 70s in under a fortnight (2 weeks). Though the dramatic swings in temperature do nothing good for the tomato plant the long stretches of cold and hot favor a long growing season for both cold and hot loving plants.

After the unbearably hot dry summer comes the Monsoon weather

During the long winter spinach, lettuce, carrots, peas, garlic and other greens do very well. Broccoli, cabbage and onions also flourish but need to be started early if growing from seed. The long hot summer benefits crops such as okra, eggplant, Chinese Long (or Asparagus) beans, Black-eyed peas, hyacinth beans, Asian and Armenian cucumbers, sunflowers, corn, watermelons, cantaloupe, peppers, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and zucchini. Oh- and tomatoes- if you can figure out how to save them from destruction. Certain limitations guide my selection in summer crops. My family doesn’t care for okra or eggplant, corn needs big blocks to pollinate well, Squash Vine Borers destroy my zucchini, lace bugs are determined to destroy my sunflowers, while cucumber beetles are always more work then the number of cantaloupes I get from my plants. So that leaves me with beans, watermelon, peppers, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cucumbers, and – if I plan right – tomatoes. As most gardeners, I try not to look at the calendar as much as the soil temperature when determining what and when to plant.

Snow is a not too common - from February 2011

The kids are excited for snow while my garden is excited for water.