Archive for February, 2008

Organic Seeds, starting off on the right foot

At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer: If you’re going to be an organic gardener, you ought to plant organic seeds. But it would really be better to say: if you’re going to buy organic products, put organic seeds on your shopping list. For home gardeners, the reason – a very good reason – to choose organic seeds is to support organic agriculture. It has very little to do with the seeds themselves.

Why does this matter? Because it means you can organically grow whatever you want. From the garden’s point of view, one bundle of genetic material is pretty much like another (assuming said bundle is good of its kind and has not been treated with fungicide or otherwise messed-with post harvest).* So although organic seed is preferable when available, insisting on its exclusive use is a little like cutting off your nose in order to spite your face.

In many cases, the organic version is available, especially if it’s a common vegetable. But uncommon heirlooms are another story; vast numbers of interesting flowers have not yet been included, and the number of organically grown hybrids is still mighty petite.

I shall stand back now and wait for the anti-hybrid avalanche to roll by, hating hybrids being all the rage these days. Well, ok. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved from year to year; you have to keep buying new ones.** Like many organic seeds, they are mostly produced by large corporations whose interest in sustainability is entirely market-driven, to the extent that it exists. But this doesn’t make hybrids Darth Vader.

In fact, hybrids bred for disease resistance are an environmental plus when they help you use less biocide. Pesticides and fungicides approved for organic gardening are still a long way from benign.

And while it’s true that a great many hybrids don’t taste very good, flavor having been sacrificed for qualities like heavy cropping and long shelf life, it’s also true that some of the tastiest vegetables in all creation are hybrid varieties: Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, Silver Queen corn, Confection winter squash – we just had some for dinner last night. It was terrific.

Spring is just around the corner, time to get ordering.

For the full seed spectrum: open pollinated, hybrid, conventional and organic, try
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Territorial Seeds,

For a good sized list of companies that offer organic seeds, potato sets and garlic bulbs, go to ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.

* Seeds from plants that thrived under organic management should produce plants that fare better when grown organically in their turn, but as far as I know there has been no scientific trial of this thesis. It would probably take several generations before any differences were evident and my guess is that even then a grower’s abilities – or lack thereof – would far outweigh any advantage conferred in the seed-production stage. Work is being done to create varieties tailored for organic production ( a very different thing), but this whole branch of plant breeding is still in its infancy.

** Actually, it is sometimes possible to “save” hybrid seeds, essentially by selecting and selecting and selecting again, over several generations of large grow-outs. It’s called stabilizing a hybrid and it’s a lot of work.

Buying Local and Organic Flowers

The cut flower industry is finally beginning to wake up and smell the roses, reports the New York Times. There is money to be made selling organic and sustainably raised flowers.

Lovely, as far as it goes, but like the organic spinach that goes from California to New York, most of those flowers are going a lot farther than necessary.

And of course choices are severely limited; Do not look to online flower sources for combinations like this
Bonica rose and old fashioned lady’s mantle(in garden, but it could have been in vase)

As local tomatoes and strawberries make clear, splendor and short travel time go hand in hand. Same deal with flowers: the closer you can get to homegrown the tastier your options will be.

This is not news to most of you, including Rachael and Jesse, who wrote in last week looking for

“someone in the Hudson valley – Orange, Putnam or Rockland or Westchester – that sells or uses organic or locally grown flowers. We’re having an event early July/late June and would love to support local.”

Having been out of the event racket for over 25 years, I have zip in the way of firsthand info. (if you have any, send it in!), but I can suggest something almost as good and a great deal more widely useful: a visit to Local Harvest, where the national database is searchable by location, crop and type of vendor. A trial request for farms + flowers + Warwick ( the first place I could think of in Orange county) brought up 57 listings and there was a flower farm on the first page so it’s probably one of many.

Finding your perfect match is unlikely to be instant , especially if you use the shopping tips below. It’ll take even longer if you take my advice and cover your posterior by ordering everything you need from two different farms. It’ll cost more too, obviously, but when the event is important it’s worth having insurance.

Most retail flower farms are small; weather is highly variable – a hailstorm might hit one location and leave one 10 miles away unscathed – and in real life, manure happens. Worst case, you’ll have done even more for local farms and will have extras to give away. Flowers for those who’ve helped with the event is always nice, or you could donate them to your local food bank. People who can’t afford enough to eat have probably gone without cut flowers for quite a while.

Flower Farm Shopping Tips:

* Does the grower sell by single variety or single color or, ideally, both? If so, is the price per stem or per bunch and if the latter how large is a bunch?

* Does the grower offer unusual fillers like the lady’s mantle above or the artemisia below?
That’s Queen Anne’s lace being a weed in the artemisia ‘Silver King’, an equally pernicious invader. Plant it once, have it for all time.

* Be sure timing is agreed upon. It’s best to cut flowers in the morning and keep them cool, but the grower may not have much in the way of ideal storage space. The sooner you can pick them up, the sooner you can get them home for proper conditioning.

Last Minute LOCAL Flowers for Valentine’s Day in the Hudson Valley

Yes we can! Rhinebeck’s famous violets have gone the way of les neiges d’antan, but there are two surviving hothouses that grow beautiful anemones and sell them retail, first come first served:

Battenfeld’s and Ralph Pitcher & Sons, (845) 876-3974

An anemone at Battenfeld’s

High Return Vegetables

If you are a gardener with limited space and time whose primary goal is the largest amount of tasty, organic food for the smallest amount of effort, these crops are winners: easy to plant, easy to care for, easy to pick, easy to prepare and in some cases, all four:

* INDETERMINATE TOMATOES are so named because the vines keep getting bigger and producing new fruit until they are felled by frost. The choice of varieties used to be small for those who were starting with purchased seedlings, but these days there’s quite an assortment at farmers markets and garden centers. I even saw baby Brandywines at our local Shaw’s supermarket last year, so something is definitely happening.

In fact, the market for painless exotica has become so large it’s spawned a whole new industry: mail order tomato – and pepper and eggplant – seedlings from nurseries like Laurel’s Heirloom Tomato Plants and Cross Country Nurseries. Choices galore, more than enough to thrill most gardeners, at prices that may also keep them from getting too thrilled for the space available. (The whole idea of mail-ordering annuals takes some getting used to; and importing instead of buying local costs green points as well as dollars. Call a few likely local sources to find out what they plan to offer before ordering from away.)

* NON-HYBRID POLE BEANS. Like indeterminate tomatoes, old fashioned pole beans keep growing and producing ‘til frost – assuming you keep them picked. They may seem like more work than bush beans because you have to provide supports, but bush beans peter out much sooner; picking them is arduous (there’s a reason stoop labor is a synonym for work nobody wants to do); and unlike pole beans, the bush kind must be washed. If they’re mulched, most of them don’t get dirty, but at least a few in every picking need a rinse, so it comes to the same thing.

Lois is picking Rattlesnake pole beans, our favorite for some years now. Vines are disease resistant, drought tolerant and hugely prolific once they start bearing. The purple speckled green beans have great flavor. They stay tender even when quite large, so any given bean can hang in there lookin’ good for at least a week – depending on the weather, of course. And as if that weren’t enough , rattlesnakes hold their quality in the ‘fridge far longer than most snap beans, a virtue that comes in handy at peak season, when the beans are really cranking and there’s a lot of other stuff to eat. All these encomiums apply to Maine and the Hudson Valley, but most catalogs describe the beans as good for growing in the south. From ( among many) JL Hudson.

* ZUCCHINI. Everything they say about avalanches of zucchini is true, especially of hybrid varieties none of which unfortunately is as delicious as Costata Romanesco. This heirloom takes longer to start bearing than modern zucchinis; it has the prickly leaves characteristic of “unimproved” varieties; and it makes big sprawly plants instead of tidy bushes. Not good for containers or planting beside the front walk. The high return is the flavor; if space is tight pass it by and go for a hybrid – most of them are fine if you pick them young.

* SWISS CHARD. Plants hold without bolting from spring through fall in all but the hottest summer areas. There’s no need to harvest whole plants; you can keep breaking off outer leaves for months and every picking will be tender as long as plants get enough water. Unlike, for instance, curly kales, even the crumpled-leaf varieties tend to grow clean because they grow so stiffly upright. Break the leaves off carefully and place them in the basket ditto and all you have to do is rinse the bases maybe.

You are supposed to wash everything, btw, even if you have grown it organically and there is not a smidgeon of dirt anywhere to be seen. (We don’t do this; we never have; we are not young. We may just have been lucky, however, so don’t say I didn’t give you the official advice).

* GARLIC. You plant it in the fall, after most of the garden chores are over; you can get a lot of it into a small space; and it’s beyond simple to plant: Just separate the garlic cloves, shove ‘em into the prepared soil, root end down and mulch the bed with straw. Come spring, weed once and renew the mulch. First come beautiful curly green garlic scapes, good both for the kitchen and in bouquets, then presto bingo in mid-summer there’s the garlic, just in time for the tomatoes and basil and beans.

* Tall varieties of SNOW PEAS AND SUGARSNAPS squeeze onto the list because they’re so easy to pick and prepare, plus the homegrown ones are SO much tastier than any other kind including the ones in farmers markets. But they take the same setup work as pole beans without having nearly as long a season and they’re done in the middle of the summer so you have to take down the supports – unless you want to take down just the spent vines and replace them with the baby morning glories you grew in peat pots so you would be ready when the time came.