A drawback to growing heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes have been all the rage for years now and they are still gaining in popularity — for good reason. Not only do they offer a wide variety of taste and texture, they also come in a rainbow of colors.

On the other hand, there are several drawbacks to growing heirloom tomatoes, I’m not going to go into all of them here right now. Their biggest shortcoming in my experience, is the comparatively small yields compared to modern tomato varieties.

Most of the heirlooms are more finicky and demand more time, attention and sometimes more space than the newer varieties. With all of the additional work that you have to put in to growing them, you would hope that would translate to more tomatoes, but it doesn’t. Many gardeners would argue that the extra taste makes up for the lack of tomatoes. It’s a legitimate argument but I’m not sure if I entirely agree with it. Just about any tomato, even the commercial ones, can taste wonderful if left to ripen on the vine and is harvested at its peak.

If you are growing tomatoes to stash away to use later in the winter, you would be much better off choosing a modern variety that will give you a much higher yield and a more consistent, dependable tomato crop. With all of the things that can happen during a growing season to reduce a tomato harvest, I like to give my crop any advantage I can.

It not unusual for me to put up 50 or more quarts during a typical fall harvest, that takes a fair number of tomatoes. Later, during the winter. those whole, canned tomatoes get cooked down even more and with a few garden herbs, get transformed into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, ketchup  and other yummy things — tomato soup is one of my favorites.

Modern tomato varieties produce more tomatoes than heirloom types.
Modern tomato varieties produce more tomatoes than heirloom types.

I still grow a few different heirloom varieties for eating fresh during the summer. There are always plenty to give away to family and friends too. Then, if there are any left at the end of the season, I’ll toss them into the canning kettle with the rest.

I’ve learned through the years that if I want enough tomatoes for canning, I need to grow modern, dependable varieties for my main tomato crop.






Which way to run rows in the garden

Even though the soil out in the garden is still very cold, we can still plant our garden — on paper that is.

There are several advantages to planning your garden on paper or on an app, before setting it out in the ground. The most obvious is you can get a good idea of how much planting material you need such as transplants, seeds or bulbs. And it is handy for calculating how many pounds of soil amendments you may need to add to the soil.

I was once one of those gardeners who never planned ahead very much. When it came to planting, I just picked out my favorite seeds and planted until it either looked like enough or I ran out of material to plant.  I also didn’t pay much attention to which way the garden was facing. Most of the time I had plenty of square footage to use and I could afford some inefficiency. That, however, is not the way to get the most out of a space.

Not long ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about which direction garden rows should run.

Sometimes there’s no choice because of the shape of the garden. A long, narrow garden spot may mean the rows have to follow the long axis of the plot. In the past, I’ve had gardens that had an irregular shape so the rows ran in more than one direction because that was the most efficient use of that particular space.

What if you have a square or nearly square garden with one of the sides facing south, should the rows run north and south or east and west?

Imagine the position of the sun in the sky during the growing season. It appears to us to travel across the sky from east to west. As it moves through the sky, the angle of the rays of sunlight changes in relation to the stationary garden plants.

In an east to west configuration,  much more sunlight will strike the south side of the plants than on any other side. In other words, the south side will receive more solar energy while the north side is shaded most of the day.

Rows planted north to south will receive sunlight more evenly. In the morning, the east side of the row receives sunlight. The plant is bathed in sunlight all day as the sun moves until late afternoon when the west side gets sunlight. So the plant receives sunlight on three sides instead of just one.

The cross-hatched areas represent rows of garden plants. The arrow heads represent rays of sunlight. Note how just the south side of the plants in the east to west rows receive sunlight. Sunlight penetrates deep into the rows that run north and south.
The cross-hatched areas represent rows of garden plants. The arrow heads represent rays of sunlight. Note how just the south side of the plants in the east to west rows receive sunlight. Sunlight penetrates deep into the rows that run north and south and contacts more of the surface area.

Not all gardens are situated facing a cardinal direction in an open area. Take for example a southeastern facing garden that is shaded from the afternoon sun. It should have its rows running northeast and southwest to receive the fullest amount of sunlight. Since the garden would get no direct sunlight in the afternoon, it would be a good idea to try to capture as much of that solar energy as possible.

We have a couple of months before our main outdoors planting happens. So now is a great time to sketch out a diagram of of your garden that, in addition to the size and shape, includes direction, and potential sunlight.


Insecticides work in different way

Winter is a time of planning for gardeners. I decided during the deep, dark days of the dead of winter to take inventory of my fertilizers and pesticides. That got me thinking about some of the different insecticides and how they work.

Chemical insecticides have been around a long time. Fortunately, modern chemistry has eliminated the need for most of the nastiest chemicals we used to use in food products. The lead-based and arsenic-based materials used in the nineteenth and early twentieth century  were made obsolete by more sophisticated chemicals introduced into the marketplace after world war two. Take for example the organophosphates, they were the by-product of chemical warfare research done in Germany during WWII. I remember using some of those products from time to time during heavy insect outbreaks in order to save a crop. I’ll tell you one thing, they sure did the job. Unfortunately, many gardeners used them constantly and on everything. I guess they thought if it was legal and on the market it was fine to use it like that. Sometimes they even eyeballed the amount to use instead of carefully measuring it before mixing. While a few organophosphates are still on the market, most of the harsher ones are no longer available for use in the home garden.

Different insecticides work by different means. For example, the contact insecticides kill when the insect comes in contact with it, either by being directly coated by it or walking across an area on the plant that has been treated.

Stomach poisons work when an insect consumes the material and it enters into the insect’s digestive system. The biological insecticide Bacillus thuringenses  is a stomach poison. It’s commonly use in organic gardening.

Bacillus thuringiensis was the first bacterial insecticide approve for use in home gardens.
Bacillus thuringiensis was the first bacterial insecticide approve for use in home gardens.

Some insecticides are absorbed by plants and are moved to all parts of the plant and remain inside the plant for a relatively long time. These are the systemic insecticides. They are often used on ornamental plants that are not intended to be eaten. I used systemic insecticides many years ago when I had over two hundred roses bushes to care for. The systemics work great for controlling rose pests.

The translaminar insecticides insecticides move just a short distance into the leaves and are not carried through the entire plant. Think of a leaf being constructed of a number of different layers, like a piece of  laminated plywood. A translaminar insecticide only moves into the first or second layer of the leaf. The organic pesticide spinosad is a translaminar material.

Some insecticides work by a combination of two or more of the these modes of action. Often manufactures combine insecticides in order to gain the advantage of multiple modes.

Because an insecticide can act differently on various types of plants, it’s important to closely follow the printed label and not try to extrapolate other uses on your own. This holds true for both conventional and organic insecticides.

Of course we’re not applying insecticides to our gardens right now but it’s not too early to remind ourselves of these things well before the gardening season.


Medicinal garden growing at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor

Not long ago growing culinary herbs in a home garden was regarded as an eccentric thing to do and only the most adventuresome gardeners grew medicinal herbs. Things have changed and more gardeners than ever are growing herbs of all kinds.

Seeds for medicinal herbs are readily available in catalogs and online stores making it easy to get started with medicinal herbs.

There are plenty of books and online resources available for anyone interested in growing medicinal herbs but nothing can replace seeing it first hand.

For a wonderful introduction to the world of medicinal herbs visit the Medicinal Garden at University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The folks at Matthaei have collaborated with the U of M College of Pharmacy to develop this garden. There you can see many different medicinal plants growing.

Over forty percent of medicines are derived from plants.
Over forty percent of medicines are derived from plants.

The garden is not organized by genus and species as botanists like to do but rather by human body systems: respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and more.  Other areas of the garden are devoted to disorders such as diabetes, infectious diseases, cancer, etc.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located near Ann Arbor at 1800 North Dixboro Road, a half mile or so south of Plymouth Road. They’re open daily from 10 am to 8 pm during the summer season.



Grow mushrooms at home in your fridge

There’s a new product out on the market that make’s you want to say:  “Why didn’t I think of that!”

The scientists at a bio-tech company called Genetic Dynamics, have come up with an easy way to grow mushrooms from seed at home.

Head researcher, Dr. Fred Kim, said: “Nearly everyone I know already has some kind of fungus growing in their refrigerator. Our research team  decided to take advantage of that fact”.

Using a combination of conventional plant breeding and cutting edge DNA technology, the scientists created a mushroom that will grow under conditions found in a typical refrigerator.

The new variety called ‘Shrooms’ uses any leftover food as a substrate to grow on. Dr. Kim noted: “The older and more forgotten the leftovers are, the better the mushrooms grow”.

Here are the Shrooms I grew on what I think is leftover mashed potatoes.
Here are the Shrooms I grew on what I think is leftover mashed potatoes.

Walter Tupper, the Executive Chef at Top O’ the Cave Restaurant in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan, uses them almost exclusively in dishes calling for mushrooms. “They have a taste reminiscent of baby portabellas. We obtain ours from a local grower.” he says.

I was able to get a hold of a packet of seeds to try out. I have to admit they are very easy to grow and tasty too!

To order seeds visit the Genetic Dynamics website.





Damaged Apple Buds

I checked my apple trees  to see if there were any apples left after that freeze we had a couple of weeks ago. There are only a handful of small apples that looked like they could grow on to maturity.

Over 99 percent of the buds were frosted and subsequently fell off the tree. I found a few buds that were still hanging on but, once I touched them with my finger, they fell to the ground.

Apple buds
The tiny apple on top will probably grow into a mature fruit. The small bud below was killed by the frost and has already separated from the tree.

There are other small, growing fruits left on the tree but many of them are deformed. In those cases, the cold temperature killed only part of the bud. They will grow to maturity but will still be gnarled when they reach full size.

We have only a few trees — can you imagine having acres of trees and having to depend on them for your livelihood? That’s the position that fruit growers in Michigan are finding themselves in this year.

The question now is, do I continue to spray? I probably will spray a few times, just to help keep insects and foliage diseases in check.


Finally Found in the Backyard

I attended the program Scott Kunst owner of Old House Gardens presented last week at the Toledo Botanical Garden.  He sprinkled his informative talk with humor and personal anecdotes. It was well worth the time spent.

During one part of his talk on backyard garden architecture ,  Scott mentioned the fact that there was one original chicken coop left in the city of  Ann Arbor.  He showed a slide of  the structure that was located in  someone’s backyard  on the Old West Side.  Off-handed he mentioned that there was also one original outhouse left in Ann Arbor.   As soon as Scott  said that, I turned to Otto sitting next to me and related a story to him about an experience Judy and I had about 15 years ago.

At that time Judy was designing and maintaining gardens for folks in the area.  One of her clients had a house in the Old West Side neighborhood.  Harold was his name I think.

Harold was in the middle  of re-planting part of his backyard.   He asked Judy to move a lilac bush that was in an unusual spot in the yard.  She agreed and asked me to help with the heavy digging.  We carefully dug out a good sized root-ball and lifted the plant out to be moved.

While digging the last few shovelfuls of dirt out of the hole, I found a marble…then another and another until I had found five marbles.

What we were digging in was the location of a long-forgotten outhouse!  I surmise that when indoor plumbing was installed, the owners tore down their outhouse and planted that lilac over the pit.  This was a very common practice at that time.

I’m guessing the marbles we found decades later must have been lost by a boy who had the marbles in his pocket when he went to occupy the outhouse!  Did he know where he lost them? Probably not.

A boy’s marbles are a precious possession in any era, it was even  more so if  a thing like this happened, say, during the Great Depression. I’m sure he was devastated when the marbles never turned up

Maybe his sister decided to exact revenge on him for teasing her so much. We’ll never know for sure.

The “night soil” had long been turned into rich humus by soil organisms. The lilac roots had penetrated the old pit and the plant was fertilized for I don’t know how many decades before we arrived to move it.

I kept those marbles all this time and never really had a chance to show them to anyone until now.

E-e-e-w-e!! I can't believe he's holding them in his bare hand!!

Those are the actual marbles dug up that afternoon.


Desert Botanical Garden

In southern Arizona, the cities of  Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale encircle an area of the Sonoran Desert known as Papago Park.  Within the Park , surrounded by red sandstone geological formations, is the Desert Botanical Garden.

I visited the Garden last week and was delighted by the setting of the 50 acre garden.  It’s collection includes over 20,000 plants, 139 of them being rare, endangered or threatened desert plant species from around the world.  For someone who was born and raised in the Great Lakes area, such as myself,  the desert landscape is quite a contrast.

View from the Desert Botanical Garden
A red sandstone butte in the distance

One of the things that caught my eye was the large number of different agave and aloe plants that were planted along the walkways. I did not have time to study all of the sometimes subtle characteristics of each specie.

Part of the desert plant collection
Walkways and handrails make it east to get around

Speaking of walkways, all of the major walkways are paved and are easy to negotiate.  There’s also plenty of architectural features as well as artistic sculptures  to keep  non-botanists from getting their eyes glazed over from the desert landscape.

Structures in the Desert Garden
Arched Structures and sculpture add visual interest

The arched structures have an assortment of desert plants that you can view close up, ranging from the relatively common Saguaro and Prickly Pear Cactus…

Plants under the Arched Structures
The arched structures provide a feeling of enclosed space.

…to the more exotic looking Creeping Devil Cactus…

Creeping Devil
They look like they're about to come after you!

…and Cristata Cactus:

Cristata Cactus
The shy Cristata Cactus huddle together

You can enter the Desert Botanical Garden for free if you are a member of The U of M Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, otherwise adult entry fee was $15 per adult when I visited Arizona last week.


Dragonflies, Jewelry and Politics

A couple of weeks ago I had an early morning visitor to the garden. Actually I believe he stayed over night until I found him in the morning.

He reminded me that gardening can have many pleasent surprises.  Sometimes, things come  your way unexpectedly.

It was still pretty chilly out, the sun wasn’t very high in the sky, so he was still resting on one of the potted Mums we are growing.

I knew he would be leaving as soon as he could so, I hurried in to the garden shed to grab my camera.

The visitor was a dragonfly covered with so many droplets of dew that he looked like he was encrusted with jewels.

I know I’m not the only person to be delighted by this sight. The American Society of Jewelry Historians has a brooch in their collection made of gold, platinum, demantoid, ruby and diamond. It was made by Emmanuel Gattle & Company way back in 1900. I’m sure the designer was inspired by a dragonfly he saw.

Dragonfly brooch

I imagine him being given an assignment by his boss to come up with an idea for a new piece of jewelry. He was probably unable to sleep all night and got up before breakfast to take a walk in the garden. He looked over and saw… well, we know the result of what he saw.

Recent international politics have been influenced by dew covered dragonflies and other insects.

Former US Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright owns at least seven dragonfly brooches  that she has worn  during diplomatic visits to  foreign countries.

Here she is wearing a brooch in the shape of a bee during talks with Yasser Arafat…who knows where she wore the Dragonfly!

Madeleine Albright Brooch

These unexpected sights in the garden can really get you thinking of things. I better stop this “stream of consciousness” right here.

Madeleine Albright’s book Read My Pins became available in book stores just last week.


Presidential Mishap in Rose Garden

The economy and auto maker bail-outs have dominated the news so much that some of the stories that would normally be reported don’t get much coverage.

We have heard so much in the past about the White House Rose Garden, but are you aware that other plants are grown in the Rose Garden as well?  The White House gardeners have almost unlimited resources when it comes to plants and other gardening related items.  Many exotic species can be found growing there.

Several days ago, one of the more unusual plants caused the President Obama to have a some-what embarrassing moment.  Apparently he had a minor altercation with one of the Giant Venus Fly-trap plants growing in the Rose Garden. He suffered some minor scratches but shook it off in a good natured manner.

You can read the entire account by clicking here.

The last time I visited the White House I managed to snap a photo of one of these remarkable plants:

Venus Flytrap

I’ll try to keep up with other newsworthy Presidential plant related articles in the future and share them with you on this site.