Our Vegetable Inheritance

downloadAmong food and garden lovers alike, the current buzzword for value is heirloom, a very good description of open-pollinated vegetable seeds. Unlike hybrids, heirlooms can be saved year after year, and although we always think of the word as extending toward the past, it’s just as relevant to the future: heirlooms aren’t just what our great-grandparents grew, they are also the varieties we can leave to our great-grandchildren.

Heirlooms are most famous for offering great flavor and for enabling the gardener to “grow your own” from start to finish. But they offer a lot more than freedom from the need to buy seed every year.

Adaptability, for instance. Heirlooms are the special province of individuals and of small, regional seed companies, who do not need to sell zillions of packets in order to make a profit; and that means they tend to be better attuned to specific local conditions (drought in the Southwest, humidity in the Southeast, cold in the North) than “one size fits all” hybrids.

Hybrids are created through carefully controlled parentage, and as a result they are uniform. Every plant will be about the same size, and it will bear its fruit in the same narrow time frame. These characteristics are important to the mechanized operations of commercial growers, but they don’t do much for home gardeners.

And though hybrid varieties are often disease resistant, they are identically so. If a disease strikes that they cannot resist, every single plant will suffer.

Heirlooms, on the other hand, are individuals. Even when they are grown from seeds that came in the same packet, each plant is subtly different from every other. They grow and ripen unevenly, so you get a longer harvest period. And they are unevenly vulnerable to diseases. When trouble strikes, some plants will no doubt be afflicted, but others may come through.

All this is not to say there’s no place for hybrids, but hybrids are not in danger. It’s heirlooms that rely on home gardeners for their continued survival, heirlooms that offer independence, and heirlooms that give gardeners a chance to do their part for the preservation of genetic diversity.

To learn more, and to gain access to a huge assortment of delicious possibilities, consul the Garden Seed Inventory, available from Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101; (563) 382-5990; http://www.seedsavers.org. It explains, eloquently, why heirlooms are important. And it is the source of sources, listing very nearly all the open-pollinated (nonhybrid) vegetable seeds available commercially in the United States, along with the names and addresses of the companies that supply them.

Within OCMGA, we have a dedicated group of members working with Seed Savers — watch this blog for an article about their efforts.


Organic Tree Fruits

For the home gardener, organic strawberries and bramble fruits are not much harder to grow than organic vegetables, but organic tree fruits are definitely a challenge. This is partly because plantings are in place for years — sometimes decades — which gives pests and diseases lots of time to dig in. It’s also because fruit trees have lots of enemies, many of them widely distributed and many of them extremely tough, thanks to years of natural selection in response to chemical biocides. Nevertheless, fruit trees can be grown organically if you are willing to take the following steps:

  1. Start by learning the basics. Never mind how delicious it sounds — is this something that does well in soil like yours, in your climate-zone, in your micro-climate? Are there particular cultivars that have built-in disease resistance?
  2. Pay close attention to the plants, keeping them in the best possible health. In addition to weeding, feeding, pruning, and applying the prophylactics (such as dormant oil sprays) that ward off problems before they happen, plan to spend plenty of time just watching out for trouble. Organically approved remedies work best when diseases are just getting started and pest populations are small.
  3. Keep it clean. Many pests and diseases winter over on fallen fruit, dead leaves, or weed debris close to the target plants, and a lot of the really nasty characters need to spend time on or in the ground in order to complete their life cycles. Rake up the fruit as soon as it falls and do the same thing for leaves, composting only healthy material (burn everything else, or send it to the landfill). Mow the area around the trees if it is in grass, plant a low cover crop such as vetch, or make sure the area is mulched.
  4. Accept imperfection, which is nature’s way. The goal is to have fruit that tastes good, not fruit that looks like it’s made of wax.
  5. Take the long view. Just as it takes years to build good soil with a fluffy texture, plentiful nutrients, and the necessary balance of life-supporting organisms, it also takes quite a while to establish the kind of self-policing ecosystem where beneficials are numerous enough to vanquish most pests. Until this happy state is achieved, there will be many temptations to resort to strong chemical fixes ‘in an emergency.’ If you succumb, you’ll lose some of the gains you’ve made in the journey toward balance, and the number of emergencies will not diminish as rapidly as it would otherwise.

Outsmarting the Intruders

“Absolute” critter prevention would require fencing that you could sell to the nearest maximum-security prison when you got tired of looking at it. But if you can life with keeping them out almost all of the time, here’s a checklist. It does not consider aesthetics, and while we’re on the subject, don’t forget that whatever you build is only as good as the gate.

deer-fence-for-garden-diy-deer-proof-garden-fenceDeer. The fence should be 8 feet high if the fence is vertical, 6 feet if it slopes outward at a 45-degree angle (they don’t like broad jumps). Neither fence needs to be solid; all you need is some kind of barrier (wires are the easiest and least expensive) running horizontally from post to post, at intervals no more than a foot apart. Electricity is optional, but recommended for the 5-foot level. Bait it with peanut butter so they get a warning shock that tells them to avoid the fence.


Rabbits. Galvanized 1-inch wire mesh fencing or chicken wire, at least 2 feet high and at least 10 inches under the ground (they’re good burrowers). No power needed.

Woodchucks. Galvanized 1-inch wire-mesh fencing, at least 2 feet high and at least 10 inches straight down, with an additional 8 inches bent forward underground, making an L-shape (with leg of the L on the garden side) — woodchucks make rabbits look like pikers in the burrowing department. No power needed.

All three. Start with galvanized 1-inch wire-mesh fencing, the 5-foot size. Bury the bottom 18 inches of fencing, as described under woodchucks. Above the fencing, string wire at 4 feet high, and then at 1-foot intervals up to 8 feet high. If you’re not worries about raccoons, you can string wire at 4 and 5 feet, then run a band of black plastic netting between the 5-foot wire and the one at the top. If you are worried about raccoons, electrify the 4-foot wires and bait them as above under deer.

Dealing with Deadly Drought

It feels like we haven’t had any significant amount of rain for over a month. The ground is hard, the grass is crackly, and all living things droop their heads in this heat. I could run up my water bill to shocking figures, or I could work with what I’ve saved in my rain barrel.

In times like these, it’s a good idea to keep your eye on the long term and give rationed water to the most important plants. Annual flowers and vegetables will be history by winter, no matter what, while expensive and slow-growing items like Japanese maples should be once-in-a-lifetime purchases.

It’s tempting to try to rescue the neediest; yellow-leaved plants with hanging heads are heart-wrenching, but plants already stunted by drought are the least likely to thrive later, even if they do survive. It’s better to water things that are OK but just a little peaked. And don’t forget that spring-flowering shrubs like lilacs start building next year’s blossoms as soon as they finish this year’s show. They need water to do it, so don’t let appearances deceive you into shortchanging them.


Smart watering using soaker lines to put the water right at the base of the plants

If possible, water whole areas rather than single plants. Dry soil wicks moisture away, so spots watered in isolation are surrounded by the enemy. Select the few healthiest tomatoes and peppers, give those all the water they need, and let the other vegetables go. Your crop will be smaller but better tasting (it takes a lot of water to make good fruit). If you’re determined to save annual flowers, shear them back. If rain comes, they will rapidly put on new growth and a burst of bloom.

And, remember, sprinklers are not the best way to water your plants. Water that lands on leaves is not absorbed. It evaporates before it reaches the ground, as does some of the water thrown into the air by a sprinkler. Watering the soil at the base of the plants really is more efficient. Even if there are no summer droughts to cause watering restrictions, it makes sense to conserve by watering effectively.

It is best not to water in the evening because leaves stay damp much longer, and damp leaves are a terrific breeding ground for many fungus diseases. The smartest gardeners water at dawn or in the early morning. With the whole day ahead, any water that does land on leaves has a chance to evaporate long before sunset.

Finally, let’s do away with the myth that water drops on foliage will burn the leaves in bright sunshine. Water droplets do magnify a bit, but not enough to even warm the leaves, let alone burn them.

Handling Chemicals Safely – a gardening tip

by OCMGA Master Gardener and Vice President Tom Wentzel

IMG_6144One of the major risks in handling garden chemicals is in the mixing.  Pouring and measure is full of skin contact risks.  Here is a method that I have tried that works well.  It is based on an ordinary turkey baster injector syringe.  Simply pierce the containers seal with the needle.  Do not remove the seal.  Draw the needed amount into the syringe, typically a tablespoon/ gallon, then squirt it into your sprayer for dilution.  I have used the method for treating deciduous shrub weeds, such as buckthorn.  Normally you would “paint” the cut end with herbicide concentrate.  This method allows you to dispense the  herbicide one drop at a time onto the cut end.  This method has a lot few steps and lowers the risks of skin contact.

July Gardening Tips

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

I had the pleasure of visiting the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum – University of Minnesota several years ago during a visit to Minneapolis. Located in Chaska, Minnesota, it’s a short drive from Minneapolis and well worth the trip. From the website: “The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, a top visitor attraction, is more than 1,200 acres of gardens and tree collections, prairie and woods and miles of trails. As a premier northern garden, the Arboretum was borne out of the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center and established in 1958, with the Men’s Garden Club of Minneapolis, Lake Minnetonka Garden Club, Minnesota State Horticultural Society and other community supporters creating the Arboretum as a gift to the University of Minnesota.” 


Dahlia test garden

During my visit, I saw rosemary shrubs that were retained in the ground year-round (something I’ve not been able to duplicate even though we’re in the same climate zone). In another area, there was a huge garden of nothing but different types of dahlias that were being tested, and a kitchen garden with dozens of varieties of tomatoes. It’s also the only time I’ve ever seen a carrion flower.

Here are some gardening tips from the arboretum for the month of July:



What’s All the Buzz About?

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

WEB_sphinx-moth2The water streamed out the end of the hose I held to water the impatiens beneath my birch tree. It was then I heard the familiar buzz of a hummingbird zoom by. Despite being among the most fascinating birds of summer, as the days roll by their presence is more familiar and I become accustomed to their antics. But something was different this time. Though it hovered and darted from blossom to blossom with the same agility and precision as a hummingbird, the flying creature was slightly smaller than usual. It was then I realized it was no bird at all, but a moth earning a similar nickname, the hummingbird moth. It’s more common name is a White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata).

I dropped the hose and ran to get my camera. When thinking of moths, many may envision images of drab, brown winged creatures most commonly seen hovering around illuminated porch lights. The Sphinx Moth, however, is a colorful insect with nearly a 4” wingspan which is most often seen in early evening sipping nectar with a long proboscis from a wide range of flowers, much like hummingbirds. In my garden, they seem to enjoy zinnias, petunias, salvia, coral bells and impatiens.white-lined-sphinx-moth-0870b-ron-dudley

If you’d like to attract this beauty to your yard, consider adding some of the host plants for the caterpillars, including apple, evening primrose, elm, grape, tomato, purslane, four o’clock and Fuschia. The caterpillars in our area are generally a bright green with spots lining its body and a small horn, resembling a tomato hornworm. While they seem like an exotic species, they are really quite common throughout the United States and southern Canada. They also occur in South and Central America north through Mexico and the West Indies as well as Eurasia and Africa.

Keep a watchful eye on your garden this summer, especially when that familiar hummingbird flies by. It may not be a bird at all. Instead, you might just be witnessing one of these fascinating moths.