The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for March, 2009

This year’s pruning tool investment

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

quinte apple

One of my gardening resolutions for this year was to get more of our approximately 20 fruit trees into better trim. Our trees range from several venerable specimens with girth I can’t reach around to a few 6 year olds, and everything in between, mostly apples grafted onto wild stock over 20 years ago. I’ve not been as good about pruning as I should have been, and now am suffering the consequences. There is a lot of out-of-reach vertical growth, several inches thick in some cases. What pruning I had been doing was with a good pair of professional quality bypass loppers, a folding pruning saw, hand pruning shears, and occasionally a regular bow saw. The bow saw we had mostly wouldn’t fit to make the needed cuts.

I had envisioned getting either some kind of pole pruners or a hand held chain saw (a cutting chain with rope on either end), essentially something that would permit me to make cuts from the ground. I do my homework now when purchasing tools, because I have learned the hard way that cheap tools are usually more expensive in the long run, and I get very aggravated by tools that don’t perform well, or only last a season or two.

I contacted a professional tree pruner, Padma at Earthwise Harmonies, and queried him about his favorite tools:

For pruning fruit trees: I generally don’t favor the heavier long pole pruning tools with exterior string mechanism which I find gets caught in the trees, yet their advantage is that they, like loppers, can cut up to 3 inch wood. Mostly I’ve come to depend upon ARS long arm (lighter=aluminum-stainless steel) pruners. For yearly maintenance work, I use the 4 feet and 7 feet with heavy duty razor edges, saws can be attached. (ARS makes an 8 feet one but I’m told it can’t be mailed.) I supplement with a telescopic (unfortunately not heavy duty) 6′ extends to 12′, but although it is a good tool, it depends on mechanisms that will eventually fail (I’ve replaced several). So the telescopic should be secondary, for places hard to reach; and if you planted and upkeep your trees yourself, you probably didn’t let them get so far out of reach to need a telescopic. The long arm ARS pruners can be got from: Pruning Tools and Harvest Equipment for Professional Fruit Industry: web: www.sfequip.com or also at www.wood-avenue.com

For slightly thicker sprouts or two year twigs I use a 10 feet long pole lever pruner made in Vermont by the Allen Bros Inc: 6023 US Route 5 Westminster, VT www. allenpolepruner.com . I’ve had one for almost 20 years but it eventually broke, I replaced it and also bought a shorter one, which I hardly ever use. They cut through a hook that also is handy for helping to pull down rotten branches.

As far as hand clippers, I go to places like Big Lots because what matters to me is that they be light weight since repetitive motion takes a toll on my hands, and I end up losing many, surprisingly some of these cheaper lighter plastic clippers are not junky.

For a chainsaw, I mostly use the smallest lightest ECHO, unless I need to make bigger cuts; I love it because at times I literally swing off a branch with one hand while using the chainsaw with the other. I found the telescopic chainsaws too heavy and inconvenient for precise side cuts. So instead I use the lightest 24 feet aluminum ladder (I prune a lot of older tall trees). I have a motorized extended 8 feet ECHO articulated hedge trimmer, the head of which I can interchange into a 6 or 7 inch jig type saws with a pruning blade with which I find I can manage to cut difficult to reach branches up to 5 or 6 inches in diameter.

orchard saw

The Allen pole pruner sounded like what I wanted, and I really liked that it is Vermont made. I phoned to get more info, and got to speak with Tim Allen, who was very helpful. From our conversation and Padma’s suggestions I realized that for the bulk of the pruning I need to do this year (high vertical shoots 3″ and thicker), what I really needed was a good ladder and an agressive hand saw. Tim suggested an orchard band saw that they carry. We just got a suitable ladder last summer, so we purchased the saw (see the photo) and have been really pleased . We decided to wait on the pole pruner until next year – it’s not cheap, but once I get the bulk of the big bad stuff cut out, the pole pruners should be good for annual maintenance.

The unScientific American on heirloom tomatoes

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

In which the Extreme Gardener’s buttons get pushed…

How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes

The product of archaic breeding strategies, heirloom tomatoes are hardly diverse and are no more “natural” than grocery-store varieties. New studies promise to restore their lost, healthy genes ….by Brendan Borrell

Famous for their taste, color and, well, homeliness, heirloom tomatoes tug at the heartstrings of gardeners and advocates of locally grown foods. The tomato aficionado might conclude that, given the immense varieties—which go by such fanciful names as Aunt Gertie’s Gold and the Green Zebra—heirlooms must have a more diverse and superior set of genes than their grocery store cousins, those run-of-the-mill hybrid varieties such as beefsteak, cherry and plum.

No matter how you slice it, however, their seeming diversity is only skin-deep: heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred—the defective product of breeding experiments that began during the Enlightenment and exploded thanks to enthusiastic backyard gardeners from Victorian England to Depression-era West Virginia. Heirlooms are the tomato equivalent of the pug—that “purebred” dog with the convoluted nose that snorts and hacks when it tries to catch a breath.

read the full article at the Scientific American.

Whose toady are you Borrell?

First of all, clarify your use of the term “heirloom” tomatoes. The statement “heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred…” is about as scientific as saying “Americans are obese.”

Are you trying to say that open pollinated tomato varieties are universally inferior to hybrid and genetically modified varieties?

And, what do you mean by “archaic breeding strategies?” Your pug analogy could be relevant to particular open pollinated or heirloom tomato varieties, but once again, it’s a foolish statement applied to the broad category, as is stating that heirlooms typically bear only 2 fruits per plant. It sounds to me like you are using the Brandywine tomato as a representative of all heirloom tomatoes. That’s not good science.

Open pollinated and heirloom tomatoes have come through the hands of thousands of breeders, who run the gamut from backyard gardeners to those who derive a salary from breeding plants, and the quality of their work is diverse, reflecting diverse needs, goals, abilities and intentions.

I have been involved in growing (and seed saving) open pollinated and heirloom vegetables for 30 years, and this includes tomato varieties of fine culinary quality and excellent plant vigor. I am not a luddite, and I don’t have romantic delusions about heirloom varieties. There are robust heirlooms and yes, there are feeble heirlooms.

It’s a good idea to try to improve disease resistance using some of the more primitive lycopersicon species. However, I do not care to have Monsanto deciding for me what constitutes a better tomato, and I certainly don’t want to have to buy seed from them every season in order to grow tomatoes. We grow all the tomatoes we eat all year, and have very specific needs and preferences that may not be relevant to anyone else. Our varieties are adapted to us and our garden in our little corner of the planet.

The Seminis/Monsanto toadies may, with their manipulations, increase genetic diversity within some tomato plants. What scares me is the lack of diversity of people doing plant breeding. That this activity is becoming increasingly centralized should set off alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about the future of food and who will control access to it.

How to eat more kale – really!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I got excited a few years ago when I started seeing the slogan “Eat more kale” on t-shirts and bumper stickers. I thought, “How cool is that? There are people out there promoting this amazing brassica.” Anyway, the slogan went from a farmers market promotion to becoming a fashion statement (as much as we do fashion statements in Vermont). But, I don’t think most gardeners are aware of how much this denizen of the frozen wastes has to offer for nearly year round sustenance.

early spring kale

Over-wintered volunteer Siberian-type kale in early May

Kale is superbly well adapted for serious food production in a cold climate garden. I have a naturalized population of Siberian-types and Russian Red-types that originally came from Peters Seeds’ breeding program, over ten years ago (Peters’ The Gulag 95 and Winter Red). By naturalized, I mean that I don’t have to sow it (though I sometimes do) because the plants are allowed to bolt, and reseed themselves. They are very hardy. Only plants that survive the winter here totally unprotected become seed parents for me: no winter mulch, no plastic, no cold frames. I have nothing against the use of season extension devices; but, for breeding purposes, and because of a lazy and miserly streak, I don’t use them. Yes, it’s brutal, but it’s my garden and I don’t want wimps for seed parents.

Kale is biennial, so the plants that survive the winter are a great source of spring salad greens. The new growth in the cool spring weather is tender and sweet. Above is a winter survivor of the Gulag 95 strain, in early May, only a few weeks after it emerged from deep snow.

early spring kale

August 2, volunteers in the path.

I stagger the bloom time to keep the two strains separate for seed production. When the type that I want to get seed from starts blooming, we pick and eat the buds of the other type (think broccoli raab) until the first is done blooming. Depending on the conditions and numbers of plants, I can usually get decent seed from both strains in the same season. There needs to be a good population, so that you can harvest what greens you need without denuding and weakening parent plants, and also to have enough parents for pollination. I find I can get good pollination with a minumum of six parent plants, but closer to twelve is better. The bolting plants do take up a fair amount of garden space, and need to be staked – the Gulag strain has seed stalks 5-6 feet tall, and lots of them.

early spring kale

Same plants October 20, ready for winter.

The problem with garden volunteers is that they frequently pop up in inconvenient places, like the middle of a walkway. Kale volunteers can be easily transplanted, but some of my best plants have been those that popped up vigorously at the very edge of a bed, and for various reasons, I chose to leave them there and work around them, even though it’s a nuisance to have them blocking a walkway.

In the photos above and at right, you can see some fine specimens that popped up between two beds. They did bully the peas on the right somewhat, but not too badly – the peas had a good head start on them.

I digress, so, back to seed harvesting. I don’t like to leave the seed pods too long in the garden, as they are very apt to get moldy and/or shatter. Some shattering is inevitable, and OK, after all, that’s where all those spontaneous little kale plants come from. I have found that I can harvest the best quality seed by cutting the seed stalks when they are still green, as soon as the top pods have filled out, see photo below.

kale seed pods

I cut the stalks and lay them onto an old bed sheet to dry on a rack in our breezeway. This is where those crappy polyester bed linens are really great – I watch for them at garage sales. Once the pods are crunchy dry, I thresh them in the bed sheet, and bottle them.

The process of saving kale seed produces an embarassment of riches if all you want is seed to plant, assuming you have good vigorous seed parents. Some years ago when broccoli seed started to be touted for sprouts as a super-health food, I found myself staring at pint and quart canning jars full of kale and pak choi seed, and the light bulb flashed in my brain. So I’m here to tell you, yes, kale seed makes excellent, delicious sprouts. I have no doubt that they have a nutritional analysis equal to or better than broccoli sprouts, and they’re easy for a home gardener to grow and process. Last time I checked, broccoli seed for sprouting was going for $38 a pound at our local co-op. There’s definitely potential for a local commercial crop here!

kale seedskale sprouts