Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Armenian Cucumber

Ready to remove seeds of fully grown Armenian Cucumber
Should you say the words “Armenian Cucumber” to gardeners in Tucson you usually get one of two responses. Either they love it or they hate it. And if they hate it this is often because they pick it when it is too big. The Armenian cucumber is the “zucchini” of the melon family. As the cucumber grows its flesh turns from a tender zucchini-cucumber taste to something reminiscent of the crunch of a carrot and the taste of a watermelon rind. It has a light green color and smooth skin that can be eaten raw and has furrowing (or ridging) along the length of the cucumber. Though it is botanically a melon (C. melo) like a cantaloupe or a honeydew it is used like a cucumber because it tastes like one when it is the size of one.

A young Tender Armenian Cucumber

So why do people grow the Armenian Cucumber instead of other cucumber varieties? Well, for several reasons. For the amount of space you can just grow more and faster. The Armenian cucumber vine pumps out the fruit. Additionally it is quick. Although other cucumber varieties boast 60 days or less I have never had any cucumber variety that can go from seed to cucumber faster than the regular light Armenian cucumber. They simply set fruit very early on the vine. Yet another reason to grow these is that they do incredibly well tolerating both poor soils and extreme heat.

Armenian Cucumbers are Prolific!

So with so many benefits, why doesn’t everyone grow Armenian cucumbers? For starters the texture is just not the same as a regular cucumber. Though the taste is like a cucumber the texture is much more like a zucchini. The second reason why many people don’t grow this variety is because of the disease issues. The regular Armenian cucumber is much like a firework. It shoots out fruit quickly and prolifically but is incredibly susceptible to cucumber mosaic virus and powdery mildew. It is so good at carrying these diseases that it will often infect all neighboring cucumbers (regular or melon varieties) once the disease is caught. The last reason why gardeners choose not to grow the Armenian cucumber is that if you miss one cucumber it will become gargantuan almost overnight. If your saving seeds, a fat seedy cucumber is what you want, but if your purpose is only to eat the cucumbers you will find that overlooking a cucumber often causes the plant to start dying (from putting all its energy into seed production) and the resulting fruit will probably not taste as good as the mouth watering cuke you desired.

Palatable cucumbers are picked when not too thick

This is the perfect size for eating.

The best way to judge if the cucumber is to judge it by the thickness. It should be a little thinner then a large grocery store cucumber. Start by putting your thumb and index finger around it.  If you cannot touch the other side it is too big, if you can just touch the other side you had better pick the cucumber before it is too late!

There is something I have noticed about all of these melon varieties that I have grown. I call it the “fuzz factor”. Small soft fuzz covers the prospective cucumber and, once pollinated, may decrease or increase as the cucumber grows. The regular Armenian cucumber has a bit of peach fuzz to begin with but is unnoticeable once the cucumber grows.

Notice - Minimal Fuzz Factor

As a gardener there are some things that just really bug me. I have a real issue with seed companies that mislabel their product. One can either excuse a seed company for this ignorance or they can perceive it as intentional deceit and false advertising, used to lead customers to buy something that they do not want. The two seed packages below are perfect examples. Once grown out, they looked exactly like the regular light pea-green Armenian cucumbers that I have always grown in color, texture, and furrows (just like the pictures above). Additionally, the misleading packaging from Bavicchi called “Tortarello Abruzzese” truly looks like something between a regular Armenian cucumber and the Armenian cucumber variety known as “Painted Serpent”. Perhaps I will try another “Tortarello Abruzzese” if anyone can send me seed of a cucumber that fits the picture shown below.

Nice Pictures - but these turned out to be Normal Armenian Cucumbers

So, in short, Armenian cucumbers are a good thing, and most likely a cucumber of the future. There are other strains of melon varieties that I have grown that have completely different merits from the regular Armenian I have discussed here. So if you love cucumbers just think – there may be an Armenian variety out there for you.

Update: If you are interested in growing any Armenian cucumbers or related cucumbers - such as the Carosello, please see my blog's sample seed shop at Cucumbershop.com.

The Armenian Cucumber: AKA: Tortarello Chiaro or Tortarello Abruzzese

If you like Armenian cucumbers, you'll love growing the striped carosello Leccese.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Monstrous Viroflay Spinach

Monstruex de Viroflay Spinach leaves grow pretty large.
 Whilst looking for good varieties of leafy greens that might do well in Arizona I happened upon a company called Condor Seeds. They are based out of Yuma, Arizona - which happens to be in Yuma County, the “Winter Salad Bowl Capital” of the U.S. With this knowledge I began scanning Condor seeds’ website until I found what I was looking for. The company happens to sell only one kind of spinach, which just happens to be open-pollinated. So what did I do? I waited and looked around at seed racks in my area until I found the exact same spinach variety as sold by Condor Seeds - Monstrueux de Viroflay. This translates into “Monsterous Viroflay” spinach – Viroflay is a city in France.

My first crop of Viroflay Spinach in January.

2nd Harvest of Viroflay (March) - the yogurt cup is for bugs

So far this winter variety this giant French Spinach has done rather well. I have had disease and growth problems with spinach in the past, but so far so good. Not all leaves are huge, but given adequate spacing I see how this spinach could be very beneficial in supplying both a baby spinach crop during thinning and a heavier large-leaf crop during final harvest. This variety tends to not become bitter even when temperatures get up to 90 degrees - though they may bolt. This means for an Arizona climate this winter crop can be extended into March or April. These fine leafy beasties are fit for a cool crisp salad or a hearty spinach lasagna.

A delicious Spinach Lasagna made by my loving wife.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A few tips for Growing Tomatoes (Tucson Edition)

Tomatoes - perhaps the hardest thing to grow in the desert.

I do not pretend to know everything about tomatoes. However, being a gardener who has made a whole lot of mistakes and read up a lot I have learned some helpful things that I hope can help keep others from losing their tomato crop to environmental factors or disease. I do not even pretend to make this an all-inclusive list, though I really feel it is some of the best of what I have learned so far about growing tomatoes in the desert.

Overall Tips:
- In order to prevent foliage disease DO NOT overhead water. High Humidity/i.e. water + heat = foliage disease. Though I do not water in my greenhouse I am always fighting tomato foliage disease because of the high humidity.

Seeds & Sprouting:
-Choose tomato varieties that will best suit your area. Ask others who live around you what varieties work well and research if you don’t get the answer you like.

-Buy seeds from companies that agree with your philosophy of growing tomato plants. What is most important for you – hybrid seed, organic seed, or that it has been grown in an environmentally sustainable manner? My favorite company is one that selects their seed based on its ability to endure environmental extremes resist diseases, while still being open-pollinated.

-Keep seeds warm (around 75-80 degrees) to sprout. Once all plants are sprouted, turn off the heater and keep them cooler while keeping the light bright.

- When starting transplants indoors, provide as much light as possible and keep plants as close to the light as possible without burning them.

- Run a fan breeze over the plants or run your hands over the top of your transplants. By “petting” your plants you increase their stocky look (the goal is to have lots of foliage on a short plant.

-When setting out new tomato plants, use a paper collar or something of the sort to keep cutworms from killing your tomato start. Cutworms can live anywhere from under rocks to- well – anywhere!

Once Vines are in the Ground:
Lowered tomato plants - corn to the West
- If you live in a hot climate, plant tomato plants in a trough (literally below ground). This technique does not work with overhead watering, but requires watering without water touching the leaves (such as using a soaker hose). Plant tomato plants far from large structures as walls and buildings release radiant heat. Provide tall west side shade for tomato plants. I grow corn, sunflowers, or create a wall of pole beans just west of my tomato plants. This allows tomatoes full sun for the first half of the day but shades them during the heat that can damage their foliage. Tomatoes love the sun but can only take so much heat. I have heard that sunflowers release growth inhibitors into the soil, though I do not think this has been too much of a problem for me due to the fact that I keep the soil for the shading plants sectioned off from the tomato soil.

Disease Control: Plant Mustard Greens then Marigolds around tomatoes.
Soil Conditioning: Plant bean plants around tomato plants until tomatoes are large enough, then cut bean plants down.

- Add a little bone meal and some compost deep in the hole you are seeking to plant in then add some more soil before transplanting. Tomatoes tend to really like bone meal.

- Watering: Water in a hole before putting the transplant in the ground. Then water the transplant well. Water every day, then every other day for a week or two. When the plant begins showing signs of growth after transplanting quickly decrease watering to once every 7 days. (Increasing the time of the watering sessions with decreasing water frequency). Even during the 107-110 degree days water, at most, once every 3 days. If you choose to water more than this you are growing tomatoes that have roots too close to the surface. Tomatoes with shallow roots are less able to reach nutrients, are more susceptible to changes in surface ground temperature extremes and consequently – are more susceptible to disease. Again, the less frequently you water, the longer the duration of watering should last. I water my tomato plants late at night for 3 hours in the middle of the summer. Another good practice is to water at the coolest part of a 24 day in which the water will not evaporate quickly afterwards.

- If you even suspect any lower leaves are diseased pull them off and dispose of them in the trash.

-Do not use tomato waste for compost. Tomatoes were bred to produce lots of fruit but are compromised by the number of diseases they can receive and produce.

- I prefer a modified Florida Weave Method that I found information on from the Seed Saver’s Forum. The Florida weave method has its advantages if you make it easy to disassemble.

- To prevent disease either rotate your tomato patch every 3-4 years or use completely new soil for your tomatoes each year. If you are rotating crops experts suggest planting a grain crop before tomatoes, as most grain plants do not share the same diseases as tomato plants.

-Mulching with finished compost helps to grow healthy tomato plants. In the midsummer finished compost mulch is nothing but a good thing.

Seed Saving:
- I prefer the “squeeze the tomato pulp out into a jar and wait until the whole thing ferments to take the seed coating off” approach. I do add a little water to this though, as the lovely mold layer that floats atop the juicy mixture can sometimes take some valuable seeds with it. A relative gave me a very useful screen to use for this as well. I pick out any very small or spotted seeds. Spotted seeds make me think of disease.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The County Library's Community Seed Lending Library

Seeds to Donate to Pima County's new Seed Library
I recently learned about Pima County Library’s new seed library opening up in order to make seeds that work for this area more available to local gardeners. The idea is that you “check out seeds” at the beginning of the season and “return them” when you harvest your own seed at the end of the season. From what I stated earlier in another post about inbreeding depression I would be wary to check out any corn seed from this library. However, I really do think this is a good way for us Tucson gardeners to get a better variety of vegetable cultivars that just might work for our climate. The only catch is that you never know what kind of disease or poor seed harvesting practices an amateur gardener may have used and you also do not know what the gardener was selecting for. There are many diseases that can be spread by infected seed if a gardener is not very aware of what he or she is doing. Additionally, a beginning gardener, such as myself in the past, may accidently select seed of the slowest growing carrots by harvesting the biggest carrots first and letting the smaller, weaker carrots, go to seed. Practices such as aforementioned would result in weaker seedlings and poor crops in the long run. The library’s website said that they hope that “over time… the seeds will become super seeds—strong, resilient, and well adapted to Arizona’s harsh climate". I may be a bit cynical here, but I don’t think there will be a good chance of that happening without well educated gardeners! In any case, as Native Seeds is involved in the project perhaps their seeds will help the cause. I packed up some of my own disease-free carefully prepared open-pollinated seeds to distribute to the community. Though I do see some kinks to be addressed with the Pima County’s seed library I do truly hope this project is successful.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Staffing the Seed Table at TOG

For those of you who are not familiar with TOG, here in Tucson the acronym stands for the Tucson Organic Gardeners. It is the wonderful organization that I go to in order to talk garden with others. There is currently a mere $15 fee and a minimal number of hours of service to the organization and it is well worth the perks to be involved including their Tuesday meetings and their newsletter. It is the garden club for people who do not want too much of a time commitment, but still want to increase their gardening knowledge. So just last night, the volunteer coordinator for TOG (Kathy) called me and asked if I would staff the seed table for the Compost Fair. Though I had some other commitments in the morning I was able to staff it in the afternoon. I really do like the seeds we order through Seeds of Change. Though I was a bit bewildered by something I saw today. Seeds of Change carries some hybrid seed. This leads me to my feelings about hybrid seed. I have always had a problem with F1, or hybrid, seeds being labeled as organic. Even with my understanding of the fact that an organic plant can produce hybrid seed, I personally feel that a non-organic seed is more useful if it is open-pollinated than hybrid seed is - even if it happens to be organic.

In any case – I had some fun today staffing the seed table. We were also selling compost cranks, soil amendments, and compost bins (what do you expect – it was a compost fair)! One of my daughters came with me. Although I wasn't about to devote a lot of time to her, she did enjoy the event whilst collecting seed packets and marshmallows from a few adults willing to give a cute little girl something. You know there’s a gardener in the household when, upon arriving home from an event like this, my daughter can taunt her siblings by showing off her new seed packets!

Staffing the Seed Table for the Tucson Organic Gardeners

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Long of Naples – An Italian Squash that produces prolifically

Myself with 122 pounds of Long of Naples

Though my Tromboncino butternut squash did well in the Tucson heat, I had seed bugs kill some of the fruit by sucking sap out. This began my search for a squash variety that could outgrow the critters and produce more food per fruit. I settled on the largest Moschata variety I could find, Long of Naples. I procured this fine Italian variety from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

My daughter with a 25 pound squash

My Long of Naples plants began very vigorously but were very slow to start fruiting and took up to 80 days before having the first female flowers blossom. As with many fruiting plants, if you have a large plant that sets its first fruits, each fruit can grow rapidly – even up to a pound per day. Long of Naples squash averages 25 pounds per fruit. At that point they begin to harden up into a winter (long-term storage) squash. Before that, you can pick the larger fruits when they are between 10-15 pounds as a summer (zucchini type) squash. I gave a 15 pound Long of Naples summer squash to a friend, who took over an hour to just cut the thing up.

Nearly 400 #s with a pencil for perspective

All considered, my two long of Naples Squash plants produced almost 500 pounds last fall – a real feat given the limited space of my garden. For a few days I had almost 400 pounds curing in my house at once. My largest squash was 43 pounds. My wife told me to take it to the county fair. I would have but they do not accept produce entries in the Home Arts division. Too bad.

A delicious summer squash

It is safe to say that Tromboncino can produce way too much food – even for my family of 6 – so I was forced to sell some of my monsters to those who would like a vegetarian feast. So how many ways can you eat squash? Plenty. We've had squash in lasagna as the noodles, in cornbread with a white sauce, in spaghetti, in various casseroles, and in lots and lots of pies. The flesh begins white when young but develops a dark orange flesh as it matures. The flesh is sweet though the texture is not as smooth and buttery as some when fully mature.

My waning squash plant soon before the first freeze

At the Jessie Owens Farmer’s Market

Selling cucumbers and beans at the Farmer's Market
Occasionally, when my garden produces too many vegetables I sell my organically grown produce at the Jessie Owens Farmer’s market. Even though this market is pretty slow in comparison to others in Tucson, the individuals who run the market are both helpful and friendly. The first time I sold there was in the fall of 2010. Our first experience at the market left my daughter and I selling out all of our excess cucumbers before the market even began. In sharp contrast, this last year I stood outside for many hours to sell off just one of my 25 pound squash. The only was I was able to sell it was by taking 1 ½ hours to cut it up the night before. Sadly, I was forced to lug the remainder of my unappreciated squash home with me. I wonder if I sold less because of less demand for my crop or because I didn't have my children with me.

Monday, January 2, 2012

On Inbreeding Depression

This Acorn Squash is a good example of an outbreeder

In order to remain self-sufficient, many gardeners choose to save seed from their favorite fruit and vegetable varieties. When seeking to save seed properly, it is important to know what you are doing. A seed saver needs to know how to grow a plant, how the plant pollinates, how to save seed, and other factors that may affect future seed viability including plant selection, variety isolation and inbreeding depression.

I began researching inbreeding depression in order to help me better determine how to plant my garden in the future. I recently read about it in
The Heirloom Life Gardener by Baker Creek seeds and in The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe. Inbreeding depression occurs when plants have too small of a population of fellow breeders during pollination. It causes future generations of plants to be weak as demonstrated by slow growth, poor vigor and disease resistance, along with poor fruit production. Some varieties of plants such as tomatoes, which can self-pollinate, have a much smaller problem with inbreeding depression than plants such as corn, that require a population of at least 200 plants to keep from inbreeding depression.

In The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe says the following about inbreeding depression for corn: “Corn is very subject to inbreeding depression. Here’s an illustration: Suppose you grow up a hundred plants and save grain each year from the plant that yields best. What kind of yield will you have in five years? Answer: Your corn variety will be so weak, wimpy, and low-yielding that you will be lucky to be able to keep it going at all. Its yield will stink compared to what you have started with, even though you selected for the highest yield each year.” pg. 282

Carol Deppe goes on to explain some standards to live by to keep from inbreeding: “The standard seed-saving rule of thumb is to save seeds from 20 plants if the species is an inbreeder and from 100 or more plants if it is an outbreeder”. Pg. 304

So what is an inbreeder? An inbreeder is a kind of plant that can pollinate its own flower if needed. Each flower contains all parts needed for pollination and fruiting. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, peas, and beans are good examples of inbreeders. Though cross-pollination may not happen too often, it is important to grow a large enough population on inbreeders that if a detrimental trait arises you can select out the bad plants and keep only the best plants out of the population.

An outbreeder is a plant that has separate pollen-producing and pollen-receiving structures within the plant. Outbreeders include the cucurbit family, many grains, melons, and most other garden plants.

Each vegetable variety has various tolerance to inbreeding depression but it is good to follow the 20/100 rule to keep from having long-run problems with your seed. That is with exception of the maize family, which requires 200 plants to keep from exhibiting inbreeding depression.

Having to select the best plants from each population and having to make sure there is a large enough population to keep from inbreeding depression can be reason to cause depression among many home gardeners. So what can a gardener do to make sure that inbreeding depression does not happen? A gardener could make sure that he grows enough of a crop each year, or he could save seed from multiple years while using different seed each year, or he could grow the same variety with other gardeners and swap seeds to keep genetic diversity high. The last option assumes that both gardeners are selecting seed for attributes that both have determined are the most important. Another helpful practice for gardeners saving seed would be to mark what year or batch the seed was grown in and note how many plants were in the population that produced the seed.

Some other websites that are really helpful in understanding inbreeding depression include Seed Saver's Exchange Seed Saving Chart. For seed saving, gardeners should at least grow enough plants to maintain a variety. There is also a website that tells about those crops that are most tolerant and sensitive to inbreeding depression.