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August 20th, 2012

Nan’s Tomato Tasting

nanstermanAfter dinner this evening, we did a tomato taste test. I can’t tell you how full I feel! Our faves so far this year are ‘Indigo Rose’, ‘Black Cherry’, and ‘Tang’.

• ‘Indigo Rose’ has sweet flesh with acid seeds and a bit of an earthy musk essence. Earlier in the season its flavor was boring, but now it’s very good. Black shoulders on orangey/red fruits.

tomato2• ‘Black Cherry’ has a complex flavor; sweet without being too sweet, and tangy. The fruits are olive-blushed red and the plants are quite productive.

• ‘Tang’ is a medium-sized bright orange/red tomato with a very good balance of sweet and acid. It’s moderately productive.

People rave about ‘Green Zebra’ but I’ve never been that impressed by it. This is the first year I’ve gotten a reasonable-sized crop from it, but fruits are mushy. It’s sweet and tart but not exciting.  —Nan Sterman, Encinitas, California

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August 14th, 2012

Plasticulture: A Dilemma for Organic Growers

don_tnPlasticulture—farming that relies on sheets of plastic film for mulch, among other uses—has become incredibly popular right now among small and large commercial farmers. There are even special machines to form beds and lay the plastic over them. The “mulch” (it’s a sheet of plastic, a world away from organic mulches we know and love, such as straw or chopped leaves) warms and protects soil, suppresses weeds without herbicides or tillage, helps prevent some diseases and pests, and makes it easier to keep crop quality high.

BUT, it involves spreading huge sheets of plastic across your fields. This material is not recycled and has the potential for adding nasty things to the environment, whether that means trashing the oceans or releasing chemicals that go along with plastic.

A farmer I know here in North Carolina grew some amazing canary melons this year using plasticulture. Man, they tasted so good they risked being outlawed. He got excellent money for them, too, about $4 for a 3-pound melon, and worth it. Although he is very scientifically literate, he dismisses concerns about the use of plastics in farming. On crops where plasticulture gives him better yields (and the difference can be very significant on melons, strawberries, and several other crops), he uses it. Besides, he says, if small farmers don’t use these kinds of techniques, they can’t compete.

He’s not alone. Recently, in Winston-Salem, a large community food bank project changed over to a completely plasticulture approach. Extension brought in the equipment and put everything in place. The yields were improved, but lost was any sense of community, and the glorious jumble that typifies community gardens.

I’m pretty skeptical, though I do use floating row covers (I recycle them), a hoop house covered in plastic, drip irrigation with plastic drip tape, and sometimes plastic film for soil solarization. I don’t know if I’m being a Luddite or if this is yet another example of our national penchant for rushing ahead with the latest gadgets and technologies in search of bigger profits, without really considering the environmental costs.  —Don Boekelheide, Charlotte, North Carolina

August 9th, 2012

Cool, Cool Summer

debbie_tnHere in Olympia we’ve had about 5 days in the 80s or higher, so the tomatoes are just starting to set fruit and peppers are starting to flower. This is my first full season at my new garden after 25 years at my other place, so it’s like learning to garden all over again. There aren’t many big slugs here but lots of the little ones, which are much more insidious. You don’t realize they’re there until everything is gone and you wonder what happened. Together with a very cold, late spring, there were no early greens to speak of. Most are just now putting on size after several plantings.

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The ‘Golden Egg’ summer squash (above) from Burpee is now coming on and is quite tasty; looks nice, too.

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I got one ‘Little Jade’ baby Chinese cabbage (above), which was actually quite large.

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The Swiss chard Neon Glow Mix (above) from Renee’s Garden is pretty; tastes like chard. ‘Yellowstone’ carrot is a beautiful light yellow and quite sturdy but a bit dense for my taste to eat fresh. I’ve been grating it and putting it into everything when I remember. I’m growing the red carrot ‘Atomic Red’ for fall/winter. ‘Capitano’ bush bean is just now putting on beans. I don’t think it’s fair to rate it because those dang slugs kept eating the leaves back so the plants are quite tiny. Got to give it points for continuing to try to grow and reproduce!

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Last year’s viola ‘Shangri-La Marina’ (above), an All-America Selections winner, made it through the winter and is going gangbusters. —Debbie Leung, Olympia, Washington

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August 2nd, 2012

Three Tomato-Growing Lessons

I have grown ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes for a while and they are one of my favorite varieties. If you leave them on the vine to ripen they will go a yellow-gold color and be quite sweet. Personally, I like them a little greener so they are a bit tarter. Interestingly, ‘Green Zebra’ starts to soften before it turns yellow; I like them just as they start to soften.

Yesterday I picked ‘Pilcer Vesy’, another of the tomato varieties we’re trialing. It has been my most vigorous grower this year and loaded with large fruit. However, I’m not so certain I like that neon yellow color. Something in my biological makeup warns me against eating neon-colored foods. I’m thinking that about ‘Indigo Rose’, too, but will make judgement on both when I taste them. I already have two wonderful yellow slicers I grow every year so ‘Pilcer Vesy’ will have some stiff competition.

My main planting of tomatoes are doing very poorly this year. They are on ground that I’ve only had developed for 2 years, and despite my efforts to build the soil they are very stunted. My other regret is that I went away for 2 weeks mid-June with my drip system just set up and we hit 2 weeks of unseasonably high temperatures. When I came back my heart fell as I could tell immediately that they hadn’t been getting enough water. Interestingly, even though I have pygmy plants this year most are loaded with fruit. I wonder if the water stress triggered fruit production over vine growth? Anyway, three lessons learned:

1. Get my drip set up at least 2 weeks before going on holidays. (Hah, I’ve been saying this for years. Maybe it’s better not to go away on holidays till July…)

2. Divide and conquer. My paste tomatoes located elsewhere in the garden (on soil I’ve been gardening and enriching for longer) are looking super.

3. Put your tomatoes on your best soil. Next year they’re going back on my more well-developed soil. Even though that area is a bit more shaded they’ll be wonderful, leafy 9-foot giants by this time next year.  —Tracey Parrish, Boulder, Colorado

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