Monday, November 17, 2008


The leaves have fallen from the trees, and Jack Frost has turned the tender summer plants to slime. Slime is good. It’s the beginning of a new cycle of life.

But there are some that don’t turn to slime at the first frost. The garden looks desolate at first glance, but here and there are still signs of life. Seeds from winter hardy veggies that were scattered in the summer have sprung up where they fell. I think it’s good to leave some of them to chance, so that they will be subject to the pressures of the local environment and evolve. Komatsuma, Dwarf Curled Scotch kale and Florida Broadleaf mustard are the main greens that have come back from seeds that were left to chance. Some Bright Lights Swiss chard also reappears, and the red-veined Italko Rosso dandelion leaves grow like weeds (in fact they are a type of chicory). Carrots and parsnips are reliable winter root crops that also shirk the cold, at least here. Here and there a clove of garlic that was missed during harvest sprang to life weeks ago. Walking onions, shallots and leeks are still green. All this plus a few potatoes spells hearty winter soups and salads.

But let’s back up a step. It would appear that I’ve missed one or two posts since “catching up”… There were some major disappointments this summer, mostly due to a gigantic gopher. Really it looks almost like a beaver. It ate most of my tomatoes and melons, and the very few squash that formed. This thing is as big as a dog and as sly as a fox. At least it didn’t have a taste for cukes. So the old-fashioned breeding projects were a flop, by and large. The weather was unusual this year, and I think that that affected things as well. In fact I know it affected the one successful breeding experiment, Astronomy Domine sweet corn.

This corn seed came from Alan Bishop of Homegrown Goodness. It was a mass cross of many heirloom corns, at least twenty different kinds, maybe as many as thirty. The point of the experiment was to send it out to different regions and subject it to the different environments. Ultimately, several generations down the road, it will stabilize to open-pollinated forms specific to those regions. The reason for using so many different types of corn as the parents is so that there is a great diversity of genes to begin with.

[“But Johno,” some of you say, “what are you doing messing with hybrids?!” Mixing genes to increase diversity and vigor is an ancient tradition; it is how many heirlooms came to be. One could perhaps say it is an heirloom tradition. Whenever you see a catalog description of an heirloom vegetable that says the fruits may come in two or more forms, that’s because it has a high level of genetic diversity – Native American melons and squash are especially known for this. But beyond that, we (the seed development community) want to create new nutritious foods for the years ahead, and spread the seeds. In another half-century or so, these will be considered heirlooms (they will be stable open-pollinated varieties long before that). But if you still aren’t convinced, feel good that well over ninety-five percent of the vegetables in my garden are heirlooms.]

Back to the story, the conditions in which this corn seed was germinated were harsh, so only the seeds that could handle harsh conditions grew to maturity. The soil temperature was just about warm enough when they were planted, a little on the cool side of ideal, but then the weather changed for the worse, as it is apt to do. The seeds sat in cold clayey soil for a good long while, and somewhere around one in four died before emergence. The ones that were left are better adapted to these conditions, and the next time they will be even more so. This would be called natural selection if the hand of man didn’t plant it.

I found some new favorite tomatoes this year. Two are cherries: Negro Azteca and Cerise Orange. The former is like a slightly better version of Black Cherry, and the latter is a small orange tomato that has the full flavor of a full-size tomato, and as you might expect from a cherry it is highly prolific. In the mid-size category, I liked Guernsey Island, which is a red tomato with yellow stripes. The best new-to-me full-size tomato this year was Vorlon. Weird name, I know, but you’ll soon forget about such a trifle. It’s similar in appearance to Cherokee Purple, which isn’t too surprising since CP is in its lineage. This is a “designer tomato” bred from Cherokee Purple and Pruden’s Purple, but it is stabilized (or open-pollinated). It is prolific, more so than the others in its class this year, and it has the complex flavor associated with most of the dark tomatoes, along with a creamy texture. I also tried some reds, one being Beefsteak. I really like its classic flavor, more acid than sweet, but not overly so. Also impressive was Big Boy OP. This theme just keeps coming up, doesn’t it?

Well, here’s an heirloom pepper that really tickled my fancy this year, Trinidad Perfume. It looks like a Habanero pepper, small, wrinkly and golden, and it has that same complex spiciness. But it has no heat! Unless you are accustomed to very hot peppers, Habaneros are just too much, but that incredible complexity before the storm almost makes them worthwhile to eat. Almost. Trinidad Perfume gives you the best of both worlds. Another heirloom sweet pepper that was new to me this year, and probably to most of you, was Nezhnost, or “Tenderness.” It was a smallish pepper for a bell, but I’m reasonably sure that was due to growing it in the driest, leanest corner of the garden. Nonetheless it was sweet, crunchy, and plentiful. Its color goes from pale green to red.

On a more philosophical note, the move to organic gardening I started years ago reveals more about the natural world to me all the time, and how complex the web of life is. But moving in that direction is simple enough. A couple or three years ago I added a small pond to the center of the garden to attract beneficial insects. Each year I plant more flowers and other such plants for the same intention. This has proved to be effective, although like most things in nature it takes time. It’s great to be using (and hence purchasing) fewer and fewer bio-pesticides each trip around the sun, as the beneficials relieve me of that chore. But I’ve finally admitted that floating row covers are an invaluable man made tool for reducing or eliminating especially difficult pest problems like squash bugs. They’re also pretty much essential for saving seed of multiple varieties of the same species at once.

As nature has effectively turned me into an old man before my time, I continue to look for ways to make gardening easier through organic methods. Nature will provide, you just have to know where to look. Compost is the key element in organic gardening, but it always seems like there’s never enough. Another one of those things I’ve been learning slowly is to compost weeds. They are abundant here in the lean Ozarks hills, but two things are important to know: one is to pull them when they are starting to flower, when they have lots of mass and nutritional value but no seeds; the other is to try to catch them when they are easiest to pull. If you get lucky, these things coincide. Of course there are leaves and grass clippings, but the addition of enormous weeds makes for more and better compost. This year I have made almost enough (for next year) without having to buy any materials.