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!”