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New Hybrid Broccoli Controversy

BroccoliThat so-good-for-you vegetable — broccoli — is in the news. A “dream team” of botanists, agrarians, and marketers has come together at Cornell University to create a broccoli that will grow in areas where the heat-sensitive cruciferous won’t normally grow. And therein lies the problem. Since nearly all commercial broccoli is grown in California, the plant suffers days of transportation before its delivered to midwestern, southern and eastern markets, a time that saps the broccoli of its fresh taste and snap. The new hybridized broccoli can withstand the relative evening warmth and humidity that has made successful commercial farming of broccoli east of the Rocky Mountains difficult. The New York Times  has the story.

The piece is actually a double profile of both broccoli and the plant physiologist who fronts the broccoli effort, Dr. Thomas Bjorkman. Bjorkman, himself a vegetarian, has envisioned making broccoli more readily available in American markets. He’s also sought to make it more palatable and nutritious. Apparently he’s succeeded. The new hybrid broccoli contains more glucoraphanin, a compound that’s been found to prevent cancer. (more…)

Summer Garden Watering, Vegetable Edition

Watering the GardenWe’ve talked a lot about xeric landscapes, water-wise gardening, drought-tolerant plants, and the like, all good things. Conserving water is always a good thing, especially when you’re paying for it. But there’s one place where skimping on garden watering can have bad consequences, where thirty plants will drink up water more quickly than anywhere else and that’s your vegetable garden. Let’s face it. Vegetables are water intensive. It takes 16 gallons to grow a single head of lettuce. It’s estimated that 40% of all water use in the United Stages goes to growing food.

So while vegetable gardens will drink up more water than your thyme and lavender-planted rock garden or you native grass lawn, it’s water well spent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t conserve water while growing vegetables. Here’s some tips, gathered from a variety of sources to help you save water when you’re giving your vegetables what they need. Most of these techniques are second nature for experienced gardeners. But they bare repeating. (more…)

July Gardening Thoughts

Garden BlossomsIt’s July and, as the song goes, the living is easy. Sure there are little chores to be done — watering, of course; and weeding — but mostly this is an expectant time with bountiful harvest of greens, peas (if you live where it’s not too hot), and fast growing root vegetables. Summer squash are in blossom and maybe setting fruit, corn is knee-high and higher, and winter squash, cucumbers and other vine crops are showing some muscle and starting to take over. There’s the first tomato blossom and is that the first tiny bean forming among all those blossoms?

It’s a good week to spend time with your garden doing nothing but taking stock. How is your garden plan looking now that things are well on their way? What pest problems are you having? How does the weather look for the rest of the month? Mostly, we just like to sit back and look at the fruits of our work. Things are still neat and orderly, everything is robust and green. And then we start thinking deeper (gardens will do that to you). Where did the craft of doing this come into our lives? How is it that with each passing year we learn more and more about raising vegetables? How well are we doing passing our knowledge to children and friends? And how important are those friends and children to what we do and learn? (more…)

Avoiding (And Treating) Melon Problems

Garden MelonsAfter our last column, a friend pointed out that she didn’t have trouble getting melons to pollinate. Her problem was with blights and mildew. It’s true that melons are a bit difficult to grow because of their susceptibility to molds and certain insects, especially when you’re trying to grow them in cooler, damp climates. Any trouble growing melons is well worth it once they reach the table. The cantaloupes, watermelons and other melons now coming into our stores from warmer climates just don’t hold a candle to a juicy, sweet, homegrown melon.

Finding the proper natural or organic cures for these melon problems can be difficult. Mulching is great for issues caused by uneven watering. But mulch can provide places for pests including squash bugs and cucumber beetles to lay eggs. These pesky critters not only consume melon plants but spread disease and wilt. Melon leaves can be burned by insecticidal soap and liquid copper sprays, two common, organic-approved solutions for bugs and mildew. They should only be used in the most diluted form possible. Other problem solvers — like using row covers to shield plants from insects — are great ideas until you need the help of pollinators. Any successful melon growing regimen begins even before you start them in your garden. (more…)

Doin’ the Pollinate Shake!

Hand PollinateNo, it’s not the latest dance craze. It’s what certain plants in your vegetable garden need to set fruit: a good shaking. Yes, it has to do with sex, er, pollination and plants can sometimes use a little help. But what it really has to do with is better yields come harvest time. So let’s get ready to pollinate!

Not a year goes by when we don’t hear someone complain that their tomatoes, cucumbers, or squash didn’t set fruit. Oh, the plants grew like crazy and blossomed to beat the band but when it came time to produce? Little or no fruiting occurred. We’ve even had this happen ourselves, usually after relocating to a different part of the country. When we’re asked what went wrong, we realize (doh!) that we didn’t do what needed to be done, that’s when we remember hand pollination. Now that July has arrived and gardens around the country are beginning to flower, it’s time to pollinate. (For those of you in cooler climates or whose gardens might be a bit behind schedule this year, here’s hoping that your blossoms are soon to show.) (more…)

Plant a Thyme Lawn

Grass AlternativeIn an effort to reduce water use and time spent caring for lawns, some gardeners are replacing their turf with thyme. Thyme is an ideal grass alternative. It requires less water, is generally tough (see “walking on thyme” below), drought resistant, hardy all the way north to zone 4 if it’s healthy, and will spread easily to fill in most of the space that you want it to. Best thing: it becomes a carpet of attractive, lavender-colored flowers that lasts long into the season. If you’re looking to replace your thirsty grass with something more xeric, consider thyme.

There are down-sides to putting in a thyme lawn. It can be expensive. When you’re planting plugs of thyme 6 to 12 inches apart, you can burn up a lot of cash fast. Most sources recommend planting smaller areas. If you have a croquet court-sized yard (in other words, large) you might want to consider planting only part of it in thyme to start. You can always go back and expand your thyme planting another season. The other down-side is the labor it takes to get your thyme in the ground. You’ll need to kill off all the grass where you intend to plant first. This can be a slow and difficult process.

How to do it? The easiest way is to use multiple applications of Roundup. But you’re not in this for easy, you’re in it to protect yourself, your loved ones, and the environment at large from harmful sprays. Digging it up is a poison-less way to do it but a lot of work. You can’t just yank up sod, leaving behind roots that will result in another layer of grass popping up. If you do dig — say you have a small space that will be manageable — dig deeply and make sure you remove any trace of roots. (more…)

GMO Failure: The Flavr Savr Tomato

Flavr Savr TomatoDisguised in the cover of a favorite summer time topic — why don’t store-bought tomatoes taste good? — The New York Times has printed a story, “You Call That A Tomato?”, with an accompanying video that frames the movement to label genetically modified food sources in the GMO development’s first failure: the Flavr Savr tomato. Brought to market in 1994, the Flavr Savr created a small sensation. Here was a tomato designed to withstand the rigors of shipping, one that would last in your kitchen for weeks while regular tomatoes shriveled and went bad. It was clearly labeled and marketed by its manufacturer Calgene as a product of “trans genetic plants.” Everyone knew what it was and why. At the time, it was seen as the leading edge of a Brave New World technology.

Watch the video for its historical and modern contrasts. You’ll hear celebrity news person Connie Chung announcing its release and Tom Brokaw repeating, “and they say it’s tastier.” How the tomato’s sale ended in disaster is more a product of marketing and a lack of practical information on the raising and shipping of tomatoes. The Flavr Savr, grown in Mexico and poorly packed and shipped, often arrived in American markets as soup. The price for them was at least twice as high as that for a regular tomato. And in a bit of the emperor not wearing clothes, consumers were shown savoring the taste of the tomato when in fact it had little taste at all. (more…)

Ladybugs To the Rescue

LadybugAmerica’s largest shopping mall, The Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, is as well known for its attractions — an indoor amusement park! an eco-park! — as it is for its collection of retail stores. It also has some 30,000 plants and 400 live trees, some as tall as 35 feet, growing inside its spacious confines. So how do they prevent an infestation of harmful insects? You don’t want to spray and endanger the 40 million visitors the Mall sees each year.

What do they do at the mall? Take a hint from greenhouses around the country and release ladybugs (also known as lady beetles). The mall recently unleashed 72,000 of the hungry critters to help control aphids and other pests. Fears that they might go after the treats shoppers carry around or enjoy in the food courts are unfounded. The bugs stick almost exclusively to plants and are only interested in getting their meals on the hoof (so to speak). Even in a space as large as the mall — it’s claimed that seven Yankee Stadiums would fit inside — the ladybugs are confined. If they finish the pests in one area and move on looking for more prey, they’ll still be inside the mall. (more…)

Dead Zone: Fertilizer Runoff Killing Gulf

Dead ZoneThis year’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, usually around 6,000 to 7,000 square miles, might well be the largest in history. The culprit? Heavy rains and flooding in the Midwest. All that runoff from the breadbasket will make its way downstream carrying copious amounts of agricultural fertilizer runoff into the Gulf. Time magazine has the story.

The Gulf dead zone, second largest in the world, is composed of oxygen-depleted water that does not support life. The process by which it forms is known as “hypoxia.” Basically, the process starts with nitrogen and phosphorous- based fertilizers being swept in quantity through the Mississippi River basin and into the Gulf at the Louisiana Delta. The fertilizer fuels the growth of algae which eventually dies or is eaten by zooplankton. Bacteria feed on the mass of dead algae and the zooplankton’s feces, exhausting the water’s oxygen as they do.

Among other negative effects, the dead zone threatens the Gulf’s lucrative commercial and sports fisheries.

Studies show that American farmers badly overuse fertilizer in a misguided effort to increase yields, an effort that also increases their expenses. In China, the problem is even worse. (more…)

Tomatoes & Basil: How Does YOUR Garden Grow?

Tomato GardenLast evening, your friendly and inquisitive Planet Natural Blogger visited a couple of distinguished food writers — they are a couple and have a couple James Beard Awards to their credit — to get their opinions on some local barbecue for a story I’m writing. We ate outdoors in their beautiful patio garden, their chickens serenading us from the nearby coop that was just out of sight.

Their garden is incorporated into the modest outdoor living space. A pair of cherry trees, their growing space circled in rock, is at the center of the stone patio (no cherries this year; a late frost took all the blossoms). Around the first cherry tree were various flowering plants. Only the bleeding hearts were in bloom. The earth around the second tree hosted a variety of herbs, partly shaded, that were just reaching picking size. One of those herbs was basil.

Elsewhere, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes were growing on terraced steps in full sun near the walls of their white-washed adobe house. By the house’s entrance, among several other plants and close to some lettuce that was already past its prime, was a yellow pear tomato plant already holding some blossoms. The space, with its various pots, growing areas, and walking spaces, not to mention the table where we sat enjoying ribs and brisket, seemed well designed. But I was puzzled by one thing. Knowing that tomatoes and basil, both full-sun lovers, did so well together, I wondered why they weren’t growing side-by-side. “We tried that,” one of my friends said, “and it just didn’t work.” (more…)

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