Grafted tomatoes, especially heirlooms, were really hot this year. Why graft heirlooms? Well, the reasoning is that by grafting the heirlooms we love—Brandywines, Green Zebras, Cherokee Purples, Mortgage Lifters—to a rootstock that’s got, say, great drought tolerance or disease resistance, you get what amounts to a super heirloom.
The strategy isn’t new. Apple and grape varieties have been produced successfully on desirable rootstock for ages. But this is the first time that home gardeners in the U.S. are really starting to see grafted vegetables, including eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and watermelon, becoming increasingly available at the retail level. Territorial Seed Company, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and White Flower Farm are just a few of the places where you’ll find grafted vegetables.
Though I admit that there can be problems with heirlooms tomatoes, I go out of my way to plant them. So I like the idea of making them more viable and widely available. Like a lot of gardeners, I feel strongly about the importance of including heirlooms of all types in the garden and, on the whole, I think heirloom tomatoes taste better than their hybrid peers, which often have tough skins and bland flavor. (Some of my favorite heirlooms are Black Krim, Green Zebra, Stupice and Sweet Million, though I always, always, always plant Sungolds, those out-of-this-world hybrid, yellow cherry tomatoes.)
Still, I’m always up for trying something new. So I was happy to get a surprise box of grafted tomato seedling samples (some heirlooms, some not) from Mighty ‘Mato early in the season. Having a limited amount of sun to work with, I kept two for myself, an Indigo Rose and a Brandywine, and gave the others to master gardener friends to plant and report back on. During the season, I also talked with more MGs and garden writers who were experimenting with grafted tomatoes. The outcome? Impressions were mixed.
Take Indigo Rose, for example. I had been wanting to try Indigo Rose, which was introduced by Oregon State University in 2012. Their goal was to produce a tomato with high levels of antioxidants. I wanted to grow the tomato because I fell for the weird looking purple-black fruit. I planted both grafted and ungrafted Indigo Rose tomatoes so I could compare the two (and so I could justify planting way too many tomatoes, like I always do).
Sadly, though they both produced an absurd amount of fruit all summer long, I didn’t like either of them, mainly because the tomatoes took FOREVER to ripen and when they finally did, they tasted bland and watery. Also of note was the fact that I honestly noticed no difference between the grafted plants and the ungrafted plants. Most of the gardeners I’ve talked to had similar experiences with Indigo Rose, though I will say that a few thought they were tastier than I did.
On the plus side, my friend, Deb, loved Mighty ‘Mato’s grafted Indigo Ruby, a cross between Indigo Rose and a cherry tomato. The plant grew well, was free of disease and produced very tasty tomatoes all season. I heard rave reviews from other gardeners, too, though I don’t know how they compared to ungrafted Indigo Ruby.
As for grafted Brandywine tomatoes, by all accounts, including mine, the grafted plants didn’t do as well as the heirlooms usually do on their own. I did hear lots of good things about grafted Legend tomatoes—great taste, good disease resistance and a LOT of tomatoes.
What does all of this mean? Well, at this point, I’m not ready to say that grafted tomatoes aren’t worth the price, which is steep compared to regular tomatoes, hybrids and heirlooms. But I’m not ready to sing their praises either. I’ll plant a couple more varieties next summer and report back on how things go. If you try grafted tomatoes, please let me know about your experiences. I’ll pass that information on so we can all compare notes.
I am severely allergic to bee venom, so I’ve always been careful when gardening to stay out of the flower beds during the times of day when bees are most active. Sadly, that’s been easy to do this year because there are no bees in my garden, save for some tiny, tiny bees that my grandma used to call “sweat bees.” There are no honeybees or bumblebees, just a lot of large scary-looking brown wasps that, like cockroaches, look as though they could survive an apocalypse.
Perhaps we are on the brink of one now. As gardeners, we see changes in nature up close in ways that others don’t. I can tell you (and I’m sure you have plenty of stories, too) that seven years ago our gardens were filled with bees and butterflies. In that short time, both have all but disappeared. Many of the gardeners I know are saying the same thing and, without exception, our talks reflect a growing mix of sadness and worry about the future. It’s one thing to read an article about how vital pollinators are to food production and quite another to walk out the back door to find normally bountiful tomato, cucumber and squash plants nearly devoid of fruit. Leaves for dinner again, anyone?
If you have ever thought about getting into beekeeping, now is the time to start. Ordinances vary by city and state, but in Minneapolis, beekeeping has been legal since 2009 and it really took off this year in May when the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance making it easier for urban beekeepers to get permits. Ever since then, more and more bee boxes have been buzzing on rooftops across the city, including some at high-profile locales such as Minneapolis City Hall, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Weisman Art Museum.
Under the new ordinance, would-be beekeepers still need to get permission from the city to keep bees. But hives can now be installed on rooftops taller than one story without approval from neighboring property owners. This is a significant change from the previous ordinance that required beekeepers to get permission from 80 percent of the neighbors within 250 feet. (To put that in perspective, in densely packed downtown, that could mean having to collect over 100 signatures.)
Honeybees are not aggressive, and backyard hives can be managed safely by trained homeowners. But rooftops are an attractive option for urban bees and their keepers because bees tend to fly up and out when exiting their boxes, lessening interaction with people down below, says Becky Masterman, who co-coordinates the Bee Squad with fellow beekeeper Jody Gerdts. Started by University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak in 2010, the Bee Squad (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/) aims to help foster healthy bee communities in the Twin Cities through education, training and data collection on the health of urban colonies.
Citizen beekeepers to the rescue
The Bee Squad’s most high-profile program is called Hive to Bottle, which allows homeowners and organizations to keep bees without having to install and manage the hives themselves if they would prefer not to. Hives at City Hall, the Weisman and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are all taken care of by the Bee Squad. Those who want to manage their own hives can receive at-home training from a Bee Squad mentor through the Home Apiary Help program. Or, for a lesser fee, homeowners can attend training sessions at the Mentoring Apiary on the University’s St. Paul campus. (Additional information on both programs can be found here: (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/beekeepers/index.htm.)
If you’re asking yourself whether you really need training to keep bees, the answer is yes. Masterman explains: “Keeping bees is really hard. It is both an art and a science, and there is no way to learn to do it right from a book or a weekend class. It really helps to have somebody next to you watching and guiding you as you learn.” So, for the sake of the bees, and yourself and your neighbors, please take the time to understand what you’re doing before rushing into beekeeping.
A few weeks back I did a short presentation in Pine City, Minn., on how to build good, healthy soil, and a woman in the audience asked: “How do I know if the compost I’m using is safe?”
I’ve been wondering that same thing, I told her, explaining that I’ve been researching the topic so I have some answers, but many more questions, too. This prompted more people to weigh in on the subject, asking: Was it important to use organic compost, especially when growing edibles? How do you know that even organic compost is safe?
Does composted manure from conventional farmers contain pesticide and herbicide residue that could cause problems in their gardens? Should you have compost tested to find out what’s in it before you use it on food crops and, if so, where? And what about GMOs? Is it safe to use composted manure produced on conventional farms on which cows eat things like Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and alfalfa?
Complex questions like these are difficult to answer definitively for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, there aren’t many studies, if any, on a particular topic. Or maybe there are numerous seemingly reputable studies, but many of them conflict with one another. For example, as a journalist who interviews people for a living, I can tell you that for every scientist I’ve talked to who dismisses the French study that came out last year linking a genetically-modified strain of maize to huge tumors in rats, I’ve got another scientist saying the study should be given serious consideration.Read More»
Most every commercial potting mix contains sphagnum peat moss because it’s a good, lightweight, organic amendment that improves drainage, as well as water retention and air circulation. The downside to peat moss is that it isn’t a sustainable resource. Peat moss is the decomposing remains of living sphagnum moss, and it is harvested at unsustainable rates from bogs in a manner than involves scraping off the top layer of the living moss to get to the saleable product below.
This process destroys centuries-old bogs, doing away with wildlife habitat, releasing C02 into the air, and eliminating wetlands that help prevent flooding. Because of this, conservationists and scientists all over the world have been pushing for limits and even bans on peat moss harvesting.
In Britain, for example, where peat is often burned for fuel, harvesting has become so intense that the government has set goals for phasing out peat for home gardening use by 2020. Professional growers will need to go peat free by 2030. For more information, check out the Royal Horticulture Society’s website: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Peat-and-the-environment/More-about-peat.
Most of the peat used by the horticultural industry in the U.S. comes from Canada where talk of limits and bans is also heating up. So, whether you are concerned about the sustainability of peat of not, now seems like as good a time as any to explore some peat-free potting soil options.Read More»
People have been talking about straw bale gardening for years and, I admit, I haven’t really paid much attention. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about the idea. It just wasn’t on the top of my list of things to try until recently when I got the opportunity to talk with Joel Karsten about his new book Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.
Karsten isn’t just another gardener talking about straw bale gardening. He invented straw bale gardening. That’s right; he came up with the idea for a growing technique that has now become an international sensation. And it all started when he was a kid growing up on a farm right here in Minnesota.
Farmers, he told me, have no need for piles of wet, unruly straw. So when a bale would break open for one reason or another and get rained on, his family would push it up against the barn to break down over time. “I always noticed that those stacked up, broken bales would have the biggest, tallest weeds growing out of them, so I knew there was nutrition in there,” Karsten recalls, adding that he didn’t think much more about it until 15 years later.
By then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota, and he and his wife Patty had just bought a house in Roseville. After looking forward to gardening at their new home, they were disappointed when they realized that their whole lot consisted of little more than construction debris in which nothing was going to grow well. Then, Karsten remembered those straw bales. “And I thought, what if I just line those bales up and try growing vegetables in them as they decompose?” he recalls.Read More»
Spring is just around the corner, which means ordering seeds and plants tops most gardeners to-do lists at the moment. I grow heirlooms and hybrids, so the pile of catalogs on our coffee table is out of control. Normally, I find ordering seeds a relaxing experience, but this year I’ve been mulling over a couple of issues that have made placing orders more stressful.
The biggest one concerns GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the need to avoid buying GMO seeds for our gardens, and you’ve probably seen at least some of the various lists going around touting ”safe” seeds. Many people, including me, don’t want to buy seed that has been genetically modified. So I was happy to find out from my friend Jeff Gillman, a hort professor at the University of Minnesota, that GMO seed is not yet available to home gardeners.
Farmers have long been able to buy GMO seed, particularly for corn and soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets. But, at least for now, that seed isn’t available to the general public so we can’t unwittingly buy them off the shelf or online—unless we pretend to be farmers for some weird reason. So where does the confusion come in? Well, maybe because you can mistakenly buy seeds from Voldemort, I mean Monsanto. And where there is Monsanto, we assume rightly or wrongly, there are GMOs.
How could you mistakenly buy from Monsanto? Well, as you may already know, the company has purchased many independent seed companies in the U.S. and abroad over the years. The biggest coup was in 2005 when Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., estimated to control more than 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and around 20 percent of the world market.Read More»
Grafting. The term probably makes you think of roses, grapes, apples and nuts, which have long been grafted to improve disease resistance and productivity. But it won’t be long before grafting is also commonly associated with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, watermelon and other vegetables that are highly susceptible to crop destroyers, such as bacterial wilt, nematodes and soil-borne diseases.
That’s because, over the last decade, researches experimenting with grafting at many U.S. universities have reported increasingly positive results with several types of vegetables. The three main benefits of grafting being: improved disease resistance, higher yields (and sometimes quality), and increased ability to adapt to harsh environmental conditions like temperature extremes, floods and drought.
While much of the research centers around the needs of commercial growers, new lines of grafted vegetables will be available to home gardeners, too. As an urban gardener with little space to grow edibles, I’m intrigued by the idea of trying grafted veggies, which might save me from the inevitable blight and pestilence my crops are likely to suffer since I can’t rotate them as often as I should. But before I plant, I want to understand more about how grafting works and, specifically, how it might affect the fruiting part of the plant. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.Read More»
“You’ve got to be f-ing kidding me.” I can’t be sure because I was pretty shaken up, but I’m fairly certain that’s what I muttered under my breath as soon as I realized I’d broken off both of my front teeth in a fall down our basement stairs on Thanksgiving morning.
It was one of those slow-motion accidents, the kind in which you try to catch yourself numerous times to no avail. Hand grabs for non-existent railing. Head hits metal post thingy by stairs. Underside of forearm takes the brunt of the fall onto the concrete floor before knees slam down and then, face—SNAP! About three-quarters of one tooth broke off cleanly and the other sort of shattered, leaving a sharp, jagged, horizontal edge. I remember spitting out tiny bits of teeth, but we looked everywhere and only found one small piece to save in a glass jar, like our moms did with our baby teeth, and we did with our dog, Lily’s.
“Honey, you won’t believe what just happened,” I called to my husband Mike, who was outside putting our plastic Santa and reindeer on the roof. But he could believe it, and so could I. Just two days earlier my new doctor had just one piece of advice for me: “Relax; chill out,” she said, “try meditation or take up yoga, even if you do it just five minutes a day.” This was her prescription for my complaints about digestion troubles, food allergies and just a general sense of feeling alternately revved up and exhausted.
As you might imagine by now, I have heard this before. But propped on one elbow on the basement floor while running the fingertips of my other hand over my broken teeth, all I could think of was how I had fallen because I was once again trying to do too many things at one time. It also wasn’t lost on me that I could have been badly hurt. As it was, once our dentist answered his emergency line and assured me that I must not have hit nerves or there would be more pain, we scheduled an appointment with him for the next day and celebrated Thanksgiving with our friends as planned. (Though I’m sure it was not too appetizing watching me eat.)
What does all of this have to do with gardening? you ask. After all this is a gardening blog. Well, here’s the thing. I’ve tried to meditate many times and just ended up sitting in a leg-cramping position while making a mental grocery list. Yoga is fine, but that’s not going to cut it as a relaxation tool for me. So, aside from working hard to be mindful of what I am doing: “You are walking down the stairs right now, and that is all you are going to focus on for the moment,” I’m wondering what else I can do to bring more calmness into my life and less multi-tasking.
And that got me thinking about gardening. I always think of gardening as my stress relief, my way of relaxing. I’m outside hauling, digging and planting from the time weather permits until it doesn’t. And when all those people walk by saying some version of: “Gorgeous gardens, but that sure looks like a lot of work,” I cheerfully reply: “It’s not work to me.” But is it and I just don’t realize it? I am not one of those gardeners who will tell you that they rarely sit and enjoy their garden because they’re always working in them. But I am the sort of gardener who, in between sips of wine and bites of dinner, looks around her gardens to assess what should be done next.
How did I let that Joe Pye weed get so tall again this year? OMG! Is that aster yellows on the phlox? What’s up with those crappy-looking ornamental grasses? I really should add more compost to those back beds this fall. Am I pruning those hydrangeas wrong? This sort of “monkey mind,” as I call it, equals a never-ending list of gardening to-dos, and I’m not bothered by that. I like being out in the garden working on this or that. But does this mean that gardening isn’t relaxing in the way I think it is? Am I really getting the dose of peace and calm my doctor thinks I need—and I clearly do need since it’s gotten to the point of lost teeth.
What do you think? How does gardening make you feel when you really think about it? And is there a point where it adds to stress rather than easing it? I would love to hear your thoughts as I muddle my way through this process of figuring out how to just “chill.”
I read a lot of gardening books, and though most have something to offer, many just cover the same old ground in one way or another. So I was happy to find a copy of Michele Owens’ book, Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Wealthy, and Wise, at the library recently. It was a rainy, cold weekend and I’d heard good things about the book, so I planned on curling up on the couch with it, and a couple of others I picked out. As it turned out, those other books just lay there unopened on the coffee table because I couldn’t put Owens’ book down until I finished it.
If you’re not familiar with Michele Owens’ garden writing for Organic Gardening and other magazines, you can get a good understanding of who she is and what she believes in by checking out her blog posts on Garden Rant, which she founded a few years back with a handful of similarly smart, funny and straight-talking garden writers. As a former political speech writer and author of several best-selling business books, Owens is keenly aware of the need to do her research before writing and throughout the book she cites the work of many horticulturists, ecologists, microbiologists and others. But all these facts do not a snoozy tome make because she is adept at interweaving studies, facts and figures with her own passionate commentary as an experienced gardener who loves plants, nature and growing vegetables.
Because she’s married to a journalist who covers climate change, Owens gets a dinnertime update on just how much stress our warming world is putting on agriculture all over the world. This understanding, coupled with a love of good, healthy food, drives her to motivate people, everyone, not just gardeners, to grow at least some food in their own backyards. Sure, that will help relieve some pressure on the world’s food supply, she writes. But growing things to eat is also just a joyful, uplifting thing to do; just ask anyone who has ever grown even one tomato plant in a pot on a balcony or back patio. There really is nothing like being able to walk outside and pick something you’ve grown yourself and pop it in your mouth, or serve it up for dinner.Read More»
A few readers have emailed lately asking if I think it’s okay to just take a few seeds from plants in people’s gardens, or if I think they should ask first. It’s a good question, and one every gardener grapples with, I imagine. I admit that I have gathered a few seeds here and there from other people’s gardens. I didn’t go up into their yards or anything. But if a plant I liked was in a boulevard garden, or poking out of a fence or over a wall, I’d take a few seeds if it seemed like there were a lot to go around. I didn’t think much about this, probably because I wouldn’t mind if people took seeds from my gardens, at least not the ones that are accessible from the sidewalk.
But then the issue came up on our Master Gardener listserv, and I got those emails I mentioned from readers, and I realized that a lot of people consider taking seeds from other people’s plants a horrible thing to do. “It’s stealing,” one gardener wrote on our listserv. And many others agreed. Of course I see their point. And even though we stealers only take a few seeds, what if everyone who came along did that? What if the plant was special, maybe an heirloom grown by the gardener’s grandma and each year’s seeds were a precious treasure to be shared with family members?
I’ve thought about all of these things and decided that I won’t ever take seeds without asking again. But this doesn’t change the fact that I would be happy to share seeds from my own gardens, and I’m fine with people taking them without asking as long as you don’t venture into the yard and frighten our scared-of-everything dog, Lily. This whole thing has got me thinking about ways to share. I could put up a sign on the boulevard next season saying “Please feel free to take seeds from the boulevard gardens!” We live on a corner lot, so there are a lot of plants to choose from out there.
But I’m not sure how to let people know they’re welcome to seeds from plants inside the fence, too. We just need to know you’re coming so we can put Lily in the house. If you live around here, and you’re reading this, just email or call and we’ll tell you to come on over. For passersby, though, I obviously need a better system. I’m wondering if there’s a good a way to join up with other gardeners in the area to start a Little Free Seed Bank, modeled after the Little Free Library boxes that are popping up all over the place. If you haven’t seen these, homeowners, businesses, anyone who wants to, really, can give money to the program and get their own birdhouse-like box to stock with books that people can take and read for free. Take a book, leave a book, that’s the idea, and from what I can tell, it’s working beautifully.
Maybe there’s a way to do something like this with seeds, too. I threw this idea out to readers of my Everyday Gardener column in our local paper, The Southwest Journal, and several people emailed to say they’d be interested in working with me on trying to get a seed sharing plan off the ground next year. If you’re a local reader and you’re interested, too, please email and let me know. If you’re not local, but you like the idea and would like to know what we dream up, just email and I’ll keep in touch.
And, if you have a minute, I would also love to know what you think about sharing seeds in general. Would you be happy to share seeds from your garden with others? Would you want people to ask before they took seeds? Do you think it’s stealing to take a few seeds from people’s gardens without asking?