Cultivation techniques Growing fruit & nuts

Pruning apple trees

I never seem to accomplish all the pruning work I should on our fruit trees. Some of the older ones are dishearteningly out of control. I’m comfortable climbing trees and using the chain saw, but not at the same time. Call me a wimp, I don’t care.

Beacon apple tree

Anyway, last week I pretty much finished up pruning for this year. Pictured is one of my victims, a Beacon apple we planted about 20 years ago. 3 or 4 years ago it was severely damaged in a wind storm and split in half, so it has needed some TLC. It’s a robust grower and is recovering well. It bears lots of large apples which has been cause for concern because the storm damage left all the branches on one side, and the weight of the fruit pulls on an already leaning tree. This year it will be quite a bit better balanced.

Over the winter I discovered an inspiring and informative web site about pruning apple trees, which is connected to a really fun talk radio show. The website belongs to Padma, who is co-host of Sniggling Eels along with a market gardener named Alan LePage. The station is WGDR, a community radio station based in Plainfield, Vermont, and streaming on the web. The conversations are lively and intelligent, and range from practical homesteading and gardening (how to train a dog not to eat the chickens) to philosophy and politics (mostly left of center). The Sniggling Eels time slot is Friday, 8-10am (US eastern time) , though I believe they will be changing to Sunday mornings soon. Check it out!

Seed companies Variety portrait

Tomatoes for winter storage

It’s the second week of April. Mud season. I just dug through 2 feet of snow to dig up the last 15# of carrots in the garden – and we still have 3 fresh tomatoes left from last September’s harvest!

This variety is Golden Treasure, bred by Peters Seed and Research, a small seed company in Oregon that has doing some excellent breeding of open pollinated garden and farm plants, including perennial grain and some really nice kale varieties.

Tomato Golden Treasure, photo taken April 10

OK, OK, so these tomatoes are not in the same culinary league as those fragrant, tender skinned Marmandes sun ripened in early September; and they don’t burst sugar in your mouth like the thumb sized Red Currant tomatoes. None the less, to have fresh tomatoes from your garden in April is pretty cool, I think; and in storage they develop a nice acidic tomato flavor. They’re a bit on the tough side (that’s why they keep so well), so we usually slice them thin.

We’ve been growing Golden Treasure for more than 10 years now. One year we were still eating them in June.

A box of Golden Treasure on January 6

They get picked green or slightly yellow in September, before frost. It’s that simple. We handle them carefully, pick them into shallow boxes, and stack them in our “back room” which stays around 40 degrees F all winter. After a couple of months they start to ripen. We start eating them around the end of November, when all the other fresh tomatoes have either been eaten or sent to the compost pit. It is necessary to cull them regularly, but when they rot it usually begins as a small blemish on the surface and does not spread very fast, and is easily cut away.

Seed politics Seed saving organizations

Seedy justice

If you follow the politics of genetics in agriculture, you probably have heard about Monsanto vs. Percy Schmeiser.
If you don’t know about this, please check it out. It will help explain why some of us seed-saving gardeners are so concerned about multinational corporations becoming the primary breeders of plants (and animals, for that matter).

Anyway, big victory for the little guys here. Monsanto settled out of court with Percy Schmeiser yesterday. It’s not the money involved – this round was just $660 in small claims court. However, it is a big deal, because in settling, Monsanto is admitting liability for the genetic contamination of Schmeiser’s canola in 2005, which is what should have been happening 10 years ago. Instead, this all started when Monsanto went after Schmeiser because samples they took from Schmeiser’s canola showed that it had been contaminated with Monsanto’s patented canola genes. The Schmeisers had been breeding their own canola for 40 years, and never planted anything from Monsanto. It seems obvious to me that they were the injured parties here, however somehow the courts didn’t see it that way.

So, what rights and liabilities do holders of plant patents have, or should they have? I am uneasy with the patenting of living things, but at the same time I can understand that people or corporations who invest their time, money and energy in breeding need to be compensated for their investment. However, I really feel that the planet’s genetic resources, especially our legacy of at least 10,000 years of humans breeding domestic plants and animals, should be a commons, and really a sacred trust.

Seed companies Seed saving organizations

Most valuable gardening tool

No, it’s not my hand forged digging fork or my flame weeder, much as they are practically extensions of my body when the snow’s off the ground. I have to give #1 status to The Garden Seed Inventory, compiled and published by the Seed Saver’s Exchange. The reason is this – in my opinion, if you don’t have plant varieties that are suited to you and your garden, nothing you do with any other gardening tools is going to matter anyway.

We save as much of our own seed as much as possible, and have a quite a few on-going long-term relationships with particular vegetables… This may sound very frugal, which it is in a sense, but I’ve been known to spend as much on seed and plants in a year as I do on clothing. Frugality isn’t the point, for me. By saving your own seed, you can have plants that get better year after year, but you’ve got to find those plants somewhere to get started… and for me it’s an ongoing quest. Every year we try out new varieties along with our tried and true.

So, how do you find the vegetables of your dreams? Here’s a clue: getting your plants from the seed rack at Walmart is like looking for a potential spouse in the local bar. Sure, you can do it and it might just work; however, to put the odds of future happiness more in your favor, I would suggest some other sources:

1. Other gardeners in your area can tell you what varieties have worked well for them, and if you’re lucky you’ll find that some of them are seed savers who may even swap or give you seed or plants. Get yee to your local farmers market or gardening club and ask around…

2. If you’re really serious about becoming a steward for endangered garden plants, join the Seed Savers Exchange, or Seeds of Diversity (Canadian) and consider adopting some varieties offered by members who garden in a climate similar to yours. Heck, even if you don’t want to commit to actually growing and maintaining rare and endangered plants yourself, become an unlisted member, just to support the very important work being done by these non-profit organizations.

3. Buy plants and seed from specialised seed companies. The good news is, there are a lot of fine seedhouses out there, and a lot of different varieties to choose from. The bad news is, getting hard copies of all the relevant seed catalogues, or perusing them online, and going through all their listings would be very very time consuming.

This is where the Garden Seed Inventory comes in. The Inventory lists only non-hybrid seed, which is what you should start with. Each variety listing includes all the catalog description info available for that variety.

For instance, I’m looking for a new-to-me sweet bell pepper to trial in the 2009 growing season. First and foremost it must be early because of our short growing season and cool climate (USDA zone 4a). So, I skim the pepper/sweet/bell listings (about 5 pages) for the earliest maturity dates, less than 60 days. I find 7 listings of interest. Then, I assess the varieties individually.

Bull Nose, for instance, is listed as 55-80 days maturity. The high end on this range, 80 days, raises a bit of a red flag. I check out the seed companies listed as sources, and the 5 seed houses are all based in mid Atlantic states and Indiana. This does not necessarily mean that’s where the seeds were grown or bred, but it ‘s another red flag for me. 55 days in the growing season of Virginia or Pennsylvania are a lot different than 55 days in my garden in northeastern Vermont. I choose to pass on Bull Nose – it could be worth a trial, but there are other candidates that are more promising.

Earliest Red Sweet comes up next – but we ‘re already growing it, having found it through this same process in the 80s. It’s one we grow nearly every year, and it’s a good performer, though the flesh is on the thin side.

Now, King of the North has a very promising name and description: “type for short season area” and “prolific, cold tolerant.” It’s listed as being carried by 18 seedhouses, including Fedco, High Mowing, and Rex’s in Minnesota, so I would say it has some cold climate cred as cold climate is the specialty for these three companies.

Frank’s and Montana Wonder look interesting – each is unique to the Sand Hill Preservation Center, a company specialising in heirlooms, and which grows its own seed in Iowa. The climate’s close, but still on the warm side compared to us. However, I check their website and see that this is the project of Glenn and Linda Drown. Glenn has been a hugely active member of Seed Saver’s Exchange since its beginning, and I have to say the Drowns are among my heroes of breeding and genetic diversity. They also list King of the North, so I will order all three varieties from them next year.

Granny Smith is a unique offering from Totally Tomatoes in Wisconsin, however, when I go to their website, it is no longer listed. (This latest edition of the Garden Seed Inventory was published in 2004) . So, you can no longer buy this one. Perhaps it will be re-offered… or not.
Finally, Morgold. The only seed company listed for it is Garden Medicinals located in Virgina, however the description says it was bred by the Morden Experimental Station in Manitoba CA in 1952. This tells me that it would be well worth trying here, as the Morden breeding program was for seriously cold climates.

I know this may all seem a bit time consuming, but I’ve found the quest for excellent varieties to be well worth the effort. Using the Inventory I’ve discovered some fabulous plants and seed houses that I never would have otherwise found. Besides, supporting small regional seed companies and heirloom projects is really good karma – it’s a direct way for anybody to promote genetic diversity in the plant material available to gardeners and farmers.

Heirloom plants Seed Savers Exchange Seed saving organizations Variety portrait

Pet peas – De Grace

I really like edible podded peas, and make about 5 succession plantings to have a steady supply from mid June to the end of September. Each planting of snow or snap peas is a 12 foot row on chicken wire support, and gives us enough for two people to eat their heart’s content daily, with enough for seed saving as well.

First of June, pea De Grace along bed edge, with Over-Winter spinach and volunteer cilantro, volunteer pak-choi and volunteer garlic.

I’m not keen on canned and frozen vegetables, with a few exceptions. My preference is always to have food as unprocessed as possible…. especially when I’m the food processor. Not that I ‘m lazy (well, maybe a little), but when supper time approaches, I pretty consistently gravitate to the edible podded peas as opposed to the green peas that must be shelled. I’ve grown quite a few varieties of green shell peas, but have only kept one or two long term over the years, largely out of guilt because they are nice varieties and were abandoned by the seed industry.

Anyway, each year now our first and last planting of the eat-all peas is a snow pea called De Grace. Originally, I purchased De Grace in 1985 from William Dam Seeds, a Canadian seed house with Dutch connections. (They no longer ship seed to the US — I miss them!)

Dam dropped this variety soon after I got it from them, and according to the Seeds of Diversity Heritage Plants Database, De Grace has not been offered by US or Canadian seedhouses in more than 20 years. I found one 2007 commercial listing by a Thomas Etty, in the UK, who specializes in heirloom varieties, but sells only in the EU. This variety was also known as Dutch Sugar and is mentioned by both names in the The American Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Horticulture and Rural Affairs, Vol II, 1836. (Love those 19th century book titles…)

Actually, I didn’t realize it was so venerable – De Grace was adopted into my botanical menagerie because it’s really good all around, and it thrives in my garden and the short growing season.

not ready yet

It’s early and more frost resistant than some of the other peas I’ve tried, definitely more so than the modern snap peas, and it’s quite heat tolerant, too. So, De Grace has become my “bookends” for the yearly pea succession.

Once you know the trick of harvesting them, they are very delicious. They are OK harvested when the pods are still small and flat, like most people harvest snow peas (see photo at right), but if you allow the peas to fatten in the pod (below), the sugars form and they are divinely sweet and crisp. You do have to snap off the stem end and pull off the strings, but this is easily accomplished in one quick motion.

ready to eat

In my garden De Grace continues to flower and bear peas over a long period of time (3-4 weeks), and I have been selecting seed for that characteristic among others. I suppose some growers might consider this a vice, but I’m not canning or freezing them, I just want an ongoing supply of fresh pods.

De Grace is a good example of a vegetable variety teetering on the brink of being lost to gardeners. I find that a lot of these older plant varieties seem to have a lot more genetic diversity and are better able to adapt to the rigors of life in my garden than many of the more modern varieties.