Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

While looking at some other books about gardening and vegetable breeding, I happened upon this book by Jane S. Smith. It tells about Luther Burbank, a plant breeder who lived the majority of his life in California around the turn of the 20th Century. Burbank was given the opportunity to follow his passion and, despite how others feel about him, helped to show that, with concerted effort, one can make a living breeding plants. Although parts of the book were laboriously boring, other parts were quite interesting.

What Luther Burbank is widely known for is for the developing of the Russet Burbank potato – the most common potato in the U.S. He happened to find a seed pod growing on another potato variety and, by saving the seeds and planting them selected a potato variety that produced, and kept well, peeled easily, was decently dry, and happened to be resistant to potato blight. One other really fun story was when Luther Burbank grew out thousands of plum trees in a single season by grafting them to almond seedlings.

A very interesting read

Of all the quotes from this book the one I related to the most comes from an address Burbank gave to the American Pomological Society in 1895 on “How to Produce New Fruits and Flowers”. During his address he noted that we must, “listen patiently, quietly and reverently to the lessons, one by one, which Mother Nature has to teach… she conveys her truth only to those who are passive and receptive”.

As I came close to the end of this book I thought about whether Luther Burbank was a good or bad for long-term gardening. I believe he was both. He made it possible for seed breeders to make a living by supporting patients on plants and by hybridizing plants. What large companies have done with this have been to work harder to protect current varieties than actual help society with the varieties they produce. The unintended consequence of hybridization is losing seed stock to varieties that may grow better- for only one season. Another negative consequence of Burbanks efforts are that, in creating new and better varieties, no one is willing to preserve the seed of old varieties that may enable the future survival of many plant species.

The positive consequence of Burbanks work is that we now have, from his efforts, many beautiful flowers as well as big, flavorful fruit. Additionally, many Americans have access to fruits and vegetables from around the world that were introduced by Burbank himself. Luther Burbank defined what it means to be a high-quality plant breeder and worked hard to ensure that many of his creations were both a source of nourishment and beauty for society.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tropical Aspirations

While visiting a friend of mine, who is also an educator and a gardener, he showed me some  tropical plants he had been growing. Though the bananas are in the greenhouse, he has managed to plant some papaya and pineapple outside.

A banana tree growing in a greenhouse

A papaya tree in Tucson

Growing Pineapples in Tucson can be a bit risky.

I may take my chances in my gardening aspirations, but I don’t think I am ready to try growing tropical plants in a Zone 9 climate. I really think what my friend is doing is cool – though I personally have neither the time nor the desire to experiment with exotic tropical plants.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

All Purple Sweet Potato

Along with all the other contributions that have been made to the gardening world by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE), the All Purple Sweet Potato has been a wonderful addition to gardens around the United States that would not have been made possible without the desire of those at SESE to trial and distribute the most hardy, adaptable vegetable seeds and starts. SESE selected the All Purple Sweet Potato from other purple varieties because of its ease to sprout and to produce hardy slips; these are two very important factors that made it impossible for me to produce slips from the purple-fleshed Okinawan sweet potato.

Purple Sweet Potato Slips

All Purple Sweet Potato Leaves

The moderate vining habit and beauty of the All Purple Sweet Potato lends it to planting as a groundcover below taller vegetables. The tight overlap of leaves is thick enough to keep soil moisture relatively high, even in my desert garden. The beautiful white and purple flowers attract plenty of bees and would be a fine complement for any flower bed. The main problem I encountered with the vines is that, once slips are established, there is little to be done until it is time to harvest. My experience with sweet potatoes in the hot desert is that they are extremely low-maintenance crop.

Bees enjoy the flowers of the All-Purple

One of the few roots growing near the surface of the ground
The roots of the All Purple tend to grow long before they grow stalky. I would take caution to plant this variety in their deepest beds as their length lends them to be slightly brittle and set deeper than many orange varieties. I had difficulty finding some of the longer roots near the bottom of my 24 inch deep beds. As with other sweet potatoes, this variety did not require much input, other than deep organic soil and consistent watering. In mid summer I watered my garden roughly 3 times per week on a soaker hose for 3 hours at a time. Planting of slips began in late April and vines were removed for harvesting on November 12th, shortly after a very light frost burned the tips of some of the leaves.
A slight frost and a free day allowed time to clear the vines for harvest

I was humbled and blessed with a very decent harvest. Over the course of several weeks I harvested over 70 pounds of purple potatoes. Although the harvest, per slip, was not as vigorous as my orange variety, it was very much worth the wait. Because I use my sweet potatoes more as a ground cover than a main crop – which led to the vines getting less than adequate sunlight - I was glad to see that the slips had done well.

I just love the cross-section of this picture!

A bucket while harvesting Purple Sweet Potatoes

Large All-Purple Sweet Potato

This root was too heavy to weigh with the others

Most of the All Purple Sweet Potato Crop

When cutting into the All Purple Sweet Potato the first thing I noticed was that many of the roots are not purple all the way through. Minor streaks of white do make their way through many of the tubers – though I am not sure if this is something that can be selected for. The reason why this I’m a little unsure about selecting for the “complete purple” trait is that many of the potatoes will have a lighter interior on one side of the root and a darker interior on the other side. When I cook the potatoes with the skin washed (not peeled) most of the white tends to disappear and I am left with dark purple steamed potatoes.

Minor streaks of white

A typical cut Purple Sweet Potato

Purple Sweet Potato Slices

Steamed Purple Sweet Potato

So what, do you ask, do the All Purple potatoes taste like? The flavor is reminiscent of the blue “tanginess” you encounter when biting into a blueberry – but not as sweet. As noted on SESE’s description of the All Purple, the roots are “starchy, dry, slightly sweet (and) good for storage…” They tend to be “good in savory dishes and mixed mashes”. I used some of the more perishable roots to bake some one pie for a potluck at TOG (Tucson Organic Gardeners) and to bake a couple more pies for dessert at Thanksgiving.

Cooked Purple Sweet Potato

One of my Purple Sweet Potato Pies - Yum!

Above all other reasons I believe gardeners should flood SESE with orders for their All Purple Sweet Potato slips is the fact that these roots are plain cool. They are purple, and apparently the anthocyanin - the chemical that makes them purple - is really healthy for you. While researching anthocyanin I came across a comment that noted that the anthocyanin chemical acts a bit like a crude pH meter. The color of the purple juice extracted by purple crops will turn from purple to red in the presence of lemon juice and from purple to green in the presence of baking soda. So of course I had to try it and guess what? It works.

Anthocyanin 1 minute after adding baking soda and lemon juice

Anthocyanin 15 minutes after adding baking soda and lemon juice

To summarize, Purple Sweet Potatoes – especially the All Purple – are cool and easy to grow. Though they neither paid me nor bribed me to say so, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a fantastic company. Including this sweet potato variety, they are often on the cutting edge of reliable and productive non-patented open-pollinated vegetable cultivars. The staff at SESE know their customers and provide them with great products. If you already have your garden favorites I would encourage you to try something a little different. Perhaps you’ll decide to add a bit of flamboyance to your life this summer by adding some more purple to your garden.

Proliferators of Purple Potatoes: Here are two other companies that sell Purple Sweet Potato Slips:

Duck Creek Farms and Sand Hill Preservation Center each sell 3 purple skin/fleshed varieties.

Additionally, Kerr Center did some trials with several of these Sweet Potatoes.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray

To prepare properly for my Thanksgiving, I decided to find another gardening book. It required extensive searching through Pima County library’s catalogue to find a book that would hold my interest over the holiday. All of Thanksgiving morning I was painstakingly cooking a turkey while preparing candied yams, mashed potatoes and two purple sweet potato pies (including the gluten-free crusts) from scratch. Once company had left and I was finally able to relax I was at last rewarded with another kind of meal I could really dig into: Gardening stories.

This book was a great read!

The Seed Underground: a growing revolution to save food is a narrative told by Janisse Ray which includes her experiences in seeking to save vegetable varieties. Many of her chapters include the experiences of other farmers and food growers seeking to save vegetable varieties from extinction. Additionally, the book includes some helpful information about seed saving, growing specific vegetables, and some very insightful thoughts about how the business of vegetable growing and seeds are treated within the United States.

From the previous knowledge I had gained while reading Seed to Seed and Breed Your Own vegetable Varieties, I only needed to skim the The Seed Underground chapters that  are devoted to planting, growing, and saving seeds to find anything I may have not already learned. The intention of this book, however, is not to provide helpful gardening information. The real substance of the book is gleaned from Ray’s narrative - which explains how vegetable varieties are being taken from us and what individual gardeners are doing about it. As I read the experiences of each gardener, I was able to relate with them, as I too seek for the best veggie varieties to grow in my area and work to adapt my plants for my climate and needs.

Of all the stories Janisse told, I related most to the Ms. Fishman, who the author called the “Sweet Potato Queen.  Ms. Fishman had saved many varieties of sweet potatoes to both preserve the varieties and in order to feed her family. She noted that she didn’t grow many other vegetables – like okra – because her family didn’t enjoy eating them. Additionally, I thought it was neat to read about the gentleman who has over 50 varieties of Jerusalem Artichoke. What saddened me was to read about how many different varieties of vegetable are being lost to the world – often forever. My heart really went out to Ray when she talked to a tomato grower about her problems with growing tomatoes in a southern climate and when she felt perplexed that publically funded universities were researching hybrid tomato varieties which in turn support the profits of private companies.

All in all I really enjoyed Janisse Ray’s The Seed Underground. It is definitely worth a read and worth applying what this book seeks to inspire its readers to do – to save endangered seed from extinction and sustain seed varieties in your area - so that when the day comes that others want to control your life you can say, “No thanks- I’ll choose to keep my freedom by growing my own food!”

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)

A few years back a gentleman at the Tucson Organic Gardeners (TOG) was offering free Jerusalem Artichoke Tubers out of a bucket. He was touting how good they were to be eaten raw. Though I reluctantly listened to his presentation and thought the crop looked interesting, I decided not to take any tubers because I had no idea how perfect this vegetable would turn out to be for my garden. My experience at TOG turned to regret when I learned from the book Perennial Vegetables how great this vegetable would be in my garden.

A typical Jerusalem Artichoke tuber

Though Americans call the roots of this sunflower a “Jerusalem Artichoke” a more appropriate name would probably be “Suntuber”, hence the nickname “Sunchoke”. As a native to the United States, the Jerusalem Artichoke grows throughout the country. However, based on my own experience, some varieties may do better in specific climates then others.

The seed root that resulted in my recent Jerusalem Artichoke crop came from Sonoma County. A farm there was selling two different varieties: one red and the other, white. I brought home a small paper bag of each variety and promptly planted them in January of 2011. That summer I planted some Chinese long beans in the same area as the Jerusalem Artichoke and the long beans crowded everything out. Though the red tubers perished, a few of the white rooted varieties managed to grow a little, despite the minimal sunlight. This last spring was the first time that I noticed a Jerusalem Artichoke flower stalk growing with vigor. It grew relatively well early in the summer then died back – partially due to lace bugs – in August. I was expecting the plant to “take over the garden” as I had read others report – but with this being Arizona – perhaps I was expecting too much.

Jerusalem Artichokes (Sunchokes)

The plant itself was much more “bushy” than I had initially expected. Compared with other sunflowers it has a large footprint. My plant, which was covered with rough leaves and small yellow flowers, reached to the height of 5-6 feet and a width of at least 4 feet in diameter.

Jerusalem Artichoke Plant

Before cooking the tubers of the Jerusalem Artichoke I read up a little. Based on their shape, I knew that the roots were a pain to peel – so I decided to pick a recipe that required no peeling. Another bit of helpful information I gleaned from my online and book reading was the warning that many people gave concerning the root – which gives it the nickname of “Fartichoke”. It seems that people cannot digest the carbohydrate “inulin” which is found in the tubers. Apparently, this lack of digestibility can lead to those who eat the roots to stomach cramps and gaseous tendencies.

The recipe I used (minus the brandy) was a Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke soup from So here are the results of this recipe: Adults love it – kids were okay with it. The main problem my children had with the soup was the texture. The tubers were harder than all the other ingredients by the end of the cooking process, which translated into how the recipe turned out. Perhaps I would suggest that the tubers be provided several minutes of cooking in the oil before adding the onion and potatoes. Though my children didn’t care for the soup, the very next night I was able to cunningly substitute the Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke soup for a white sauce required as an ingredient for a casserole. Good thing my kids don’t read my blog – yet!

Jerusalem Artichoke cut up with potatoes

So the soup turned out to be a success. I noticed very little problems with gas, which I can only ascribe to either cooking it with potatoes or to my substantial raw vegetable consumption. The main affect I noticed from eating Jerusalem Artichokes was improved digestion – which is a very positive effect given that my difficulty digesting meat has lead me to become almost completely vegetarian.

So my overall rating for this vegetable is good. I’ll keep it in my garden as a perennial and add it to my potato-based recipes. Perhaps I’ll even try to obtain other Jerusalem Artichoke Cultivars.

If you would like to know more about rearing Jerusalem Artichokes, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) has a good planting guide. In addition, both Wikipedia and Mother Earth News have some nice articles about the Jerusalem Artichoke. 

Even with many different varieties of Jerusalem Artichoke available, very few websites sell more than one variety or even know what variety they sell. Despite this, I have discovered two websites that provide multiple Sunchokes varieties. The first offers two varieties at Fedco Seeds Moose Tubers and the second site offers various varieties online at Oikos Tree

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cleaning up Summer

Over Veteran's Day my wife lovingly provided me with the time to clean up my summer garden and harvest my sweet potatoes. The crop experienced a light frost a couple days beforehand and I reasoned that I would not have any time between then and when a hard frost came to spend cleaning up my summer garden.

My Summer Garden Back in August

A light frost and time off provides clean-up opportunities

My 2012 Summer Garden has come to an end

Due to the extent of the vine growth, most of my time was spent cutting back Purple Hyacinth Bean and Sweet Potato foliage.

A few of the composted vines - my wife humored me in taking this picture

It is difficult to see the end of a season, though, especially in warmer climates – the death of plants in one season means the life of plants in the new season.

~With this thought I say goodbye to summer and hello to winter!~

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Trip to Apple Annie's

When Tucson Unified School District changed the school calendar, we received an added “Fall break” in October – so decided to spend some quality family time together. After packing our children up, we drove over to Apple Annie’s, a Orchard and Farm located in Wilcox, Arizona. Among the activities we participated in included using clues to help guide us through the corn maze, harvesting apples from an orchard, harvesting tomatoes from a small tomato patch, and picking out a pumpkin to use for Halloween. 

Corn Maze at Apple Annie's

Red Delicious Apples at Apple Annie's

Harvesting Tomatoes with the Family

Amazingly, the pumpkin did last until Halloween – though I didn’t save any of the seeds. We really enjoy salted and baked pumpkin seeds.

My family removing seeds for Carving a Pumpkin

So what does this have to do with scientific gardening? While we were at Apple Annie's I was able to harvest some Milo to try as a cover crop next summer. Additionally, I called and inquired about the bush bean cultivar that Apple Annie’s farm was growing so well in the heat. The flowers looked like tepary bean flowers, though the beans remained tender until a large size. Despite inquiries, no one from Apple Annie’s has returned my phone calls. I suppose I’ll have to keep working on my search for a tender, nearly heat-proof English-type bean cultivar to grow in my garden.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Defining a Weed

As I visited a local garden I noticed some plants that were not producing the way they should. In the past, I have noticed plants like these in my garden. Although unproductive plants are not necessarily weeds, it is noteworthy to recognize plants that fit the mould of a weed. When these plants are left in the garden to take up space, they extract the garden’s resources without giving the gardener the pleasure of a “good” crop.

According to Merrium Webster, a weed is a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants. For me, a weed can be a cultivated plant that is “not wanted” or a plant that as takes up space (and light) that could be better used for productive plants.

Though it sounds cruel, there are many good reasons to pull up or cut down a weedy garden plant. Here are a few:

1. If a plant dithers.

A Watermelon vine that is just not growing well

2. If a plant does not produce well.

Many of my peppers didn't get posted about because of poor production

3. If a whole plant becomes diseased.

Some kind of mosiac or curly top virus on a tomato plant

4. If a plant grows too large, without producing much.

Tomatoes are great - except if you have a huge plant with no tomatoes on it

5. If my family doesn’t like the veggies I produce.

My family doesn't care much for Brussel Sprouts

With my garden consisting of a small plot, it is important for me to cut down or remove ineffective plants that shade out useful plants. Though any cultivated plant may be fun to grow for some people, productive and useful plants are those that bring me the most joy.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cooking Purple Hyacinth Beans

Though my family has enjoyed the bountiful harvest of Purple Hyacinth Beans I have stir-fried, they really prefer the English beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) such as “Blue Lake” that you buy fresh, frozen, or canned from the store. The cooking method to make the Purple Hyacinth Bean (Lablab purpureus) taste like an English-type bean is the same as the method I use for Chinese Long Beans, though the Hyacinth beans must be cooked for a shorter amount of time. In short, I blanch them.

Purple Hyacinth Beans Ready to Cook

Blanching requires bringing a pot of water to a rolling boil and making the water very briny with a generous amount of salt (at least ¼ cup of salt per 2 quarts of water).  

Add plenty of salt to the boiling water

Once you have the beans ready and the water boiling, set the timer for 3 minutes and dump in the beans.

Stir the beans after 2 minutes just to make sure both sides of all beans are blanched.

Beans should turn a green color, as shown below.

Most - but not all - beans will turn some shade of green

Finally out the beans using a colander and serve with butter or eat plain.

Not so purple Hyacinth Beans ready to eat

While some people may scoff at the idea of losing so many minerals in the water or having to prepare so much to blanch the beans, I feel blanching the beans is time well spent to have my children enjoy eating their veggies.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Garden Maintenance and Carosello Thoughts

When I began vegetable gardening in Tucson I quickly discovered that I was investing way too much time for what little produce my garden produced. Sure – Brussel Sprouts and Broccoli are nice vegetables, but the amount of maintenance required for the meager reward was not worth the effort. With time and experience I learned which plants required a high amount of maintenance and which plants required very little maintenance. I decided that I would have a mixture of crops that required both large and small demands on my time.

Carosello Pollisello Cucumber-Melon Blossom
I wonder why this flower has not been pollinated yet?

With this maintenance scheme in mind I have recently decided that my favorite kind of vegetable is the kind that has a lower maintenance in some areas and higher maintenance in other areas. I strive to grow vegetables that require lower maintenance and greater disease resistance and tolerance to environmental conditions while requiring higher maintenance in relation to needing to be harvested. That is really what has drawn me towards the cucumber-melons. For the hot southern states where heat and disease is a real problem, cucumber-melons (including the Carosello) are great.

A flower is becoming a cucumber! (=

Some dark Carosello Polisello Growing

A tasty dark Carosello Polisello

Some kind of Mandurian Round carosello I grew this summer

My experience with the Carosello cucumber-melons has been wonderful so far. They are vigorous, heat-loving plants that demand fertile soil. The more fertile and composted the soil, the better the plants grow. Their growth pattern is very predictable, and it is always fun to watch the fruit grow. The amount of fruit they produce is relatively high and the colors and patterns the fruit can be bred to produce make the cucumber a beautiful treat.

Some of the Carosello Fruit I harvested this summer

Carosello Polisello harvested for seed
Inside of Carosello Fruit
Carosello Seed and Pulp
Cleaning Seed from Pulp
Cleaned Carosello Seed
Though harvesting seed from the fruit is relatively easy, figuring out how long to wait until picking the fruit and determining how long to leave the fruit in storage before harvesting the seed are still aspects of the growing process I have not yet learned.. Mature carosello fruit do have a slight swetness immediately after the fruit is cut open though the fruit quickly loses its sweetness thereafter. Though the flesh of the mature fruit does have the texture and appearance of sweeter melons the taste can be described as bland at best.

Light colored Carosello

The flesh of this Carosello is very similar to honeydew