Tomato Review #2 Banana Legs – it don’t look like a banana and it don’t got legs

It’s raining tomatoes here at the Homegrown Evolution compound and time for the second in our series of tomato reviews. Today, Banana Legs, a determinate variety with yellow flesh and light green streaks. It has a mild, low acid flavor and a meaty texture. Not bad, not thrilling, not nearly is as good as a similar looking tomato we grew last year, Power’s Heirloom.

We grew our Banana Legs in a self watering container (SWC) and it produced a respectable amount of fruit. With a sunny balcony, folks in apartments could do the same. For our container we used a repurposed storage bin and we’d recommend the largest container you can find for tomatoes or sticking to tomato varieties specifically bred for containers. As soon as the large root system of a tomato plant gets down into the water reservoir at the bottom of an SWC you can get some leaf curl. This did not seem to reduce the output of our plant, but it was somewhat ugly looking. We also made the dumb, lazy mistake of not caging the plant and it sprawled helplessly over the sides of the planter, probably reducing our yield. Here’s the way we normally cage our tomatoes when we’re not too busy blogging. You can also check out Bruce F’s nice staking system for his rooftop garden in Chicago.

Verdict: we gotta get some of those Power’s Heirloom seeds next season, but I’ll save a few of the Banana Legs seeds for the sake of variety.

Whiteflies

The upside to garden pests and diseases is getting to do a little amateur backyard science. Any excuse to mix up a martini, pull out the microscope and take a close look at things and we’re all over it. This week’s happy hour entomology comes thanks to a infestation of white flies living on the underside of our tree collards.

I believe the specific culprit pictured above is the greenhouse whitefly, Trialeurodes vaporariorum which, despite the name, does not only inhabit greenhouses. Moving the leaf around under the microscope revealed thousands of tiny eggs pictured on the right. These eggs hatch and pass through several stages on the way to the winged adults seen above. At all stages, whiteflies suck sap from the host plant (brassica family members like collards are a favorite) and exude honeydew. Some whitefly species are tended and protected by ants acting like miniature cattle ranchers in return for the sweet, sticky honeydew–yet another remarkable example of symbiosis among nature’s many cycles of interdependence.

Control of our whitefly interlopers was simple: we washed them off with a hose. If we had a huge row of collards we might have had a bigger problem on our hands, but biodiversity in our tiny backyard means that the whiteflys don’t have many other options for feeding. What we could have done better is to have kept a closer eye on our plants. Daily inspection of more sensitive vegetables is always a good idea, but something we’ve been lax about lately. Keeping intensively planted annual vegetable beds close to places of daily activity means being able to stay on top of pest and disease problems. Raised beds we recently installed by the front door are on the path of our early morning amble down to the street to pick up the newspaper. A quick glance is sometimes all that’s need to spot a problem.

Permaculturalist Bill Mollison and David Holmgren suggest conceiving of our living spaces in a series of concentric zones, numbered one through five, with the first zone being our house and kitchen gardens and the outer zones being less cultivated and more wild spaces. Mollison and Holmgren’s zones are easily miniaturized for small urban yards. Trees that don’t need much attention can go towards the back, the chickens a little closer and the vegetables and herbs can benefit from being close at hand.

For additional information on whiteflys see the Colorado State Extension service’s whitefly quick facts.

Gardening in an Apartment Windowsill

Photo courtesy of Helen Kim

Without exaggeration, this is the most amazing garden I have ever seen. It’s easy if you’re the king of France to create the gardens of Versailles, but a much greater achievement to bring nature’s abundance to an apartment windowsill in Los Angeles. It’s the handiwork of a talented photographer named Helen Kim who, in this tiny space, grows cucumber, basil, lemon verbena, alfalfa sprouts, leeks, tarragon, beans, endive, dill, arugula, oregano, parsley, stevia, green onions, thyme, strawberries, mustard greens, lemon grass, and what Helen describes as “a curryish plant that is awfully nice for smelling but underwhelming for cooking.” Read an interview with Helen about this garden here.

Gardening is not about the quantity of space one controls or the weight of the food harvested. It’s about a love for beauty, an attention to detail and an appreciation of good food. Imagine if all our unused or neglected urban spaces were as beautiful and useful as Helen’s garden. We’d live in a world transformed, one windowsill at a time.

Boulder man faces $2000 fine/day for guerilla garden fencing

Via BoingBoing (complete with video):

“[L]ast month, an enforcement officer from Boulder’s Environmental and Zoning Enforcement office showed up and said a neighbor had complained about the garden.

“She said to take it all down — the tomato cages, the trellises, the posts, the basketball hoop, everything,” Hoffenberg said.

Hoffenberg has until July 14 to take down the trellises and fencing. At that point, Arthur said, he could be cited, and a judge could impose a fine. Or the city could remove the impediments, since they’re on public property, Arthur said, if they’re not able to reach a compromise.”

Myself and three other neighbors here in my Los Angeles neighborhood are doing exactly the same parkway vegetable planting Hoffenberg is doing. All it takes is one disgruntled and unhappy neighbor. We gotta change the paradigm folks–food not lawns!

Terror of Tiny Town

The Homegrown Evolution in-box overfloweth this week with news of the cute and the tiny. Yesterday’s post about our miniature Red Currant tomatoes prompted Bruce F of Chicago to inform us that he’s working on the world’s smallest kale plant. He’s growing them in self-watering containers made with old pop bottles (more info on how to make a pop bottle self-watering container here and here). These pop bottle containers look like they’d work well for starting seeds, as they provide a constant source of water.

Nance Klehm, another intrepid Chicago resident, informed us that someone just gave her two bantam chickens for her backyard, the perfect compliment to her chihuahuas. Some say that bantams are better for smaller backyards due to their diminutive size. Readers with bantam experience please let us know what you think about keeping bantams vs. normal chickens as we only have experience with SUV sized poultry.

The photo above is, incidentally, a scene from Werner Herzog’s brilliant and inexplicable film “Even Dwarfs Started Small”.

Tomato Review #1 Red Currant–The World’s Smallest Tomato

Due to poor planning in our garden this year we’ve had a bit of a “need to get produce at the supermarket” gap. Ironically, the first bit of homegrown produce to appear this summer came in the form of what we’re calling the world’s smallest tomato: an heirloom variety Mrs. Homegrown Evolution picked up at this year’s Tomato Mania sale called Red Currant (Solanum pimpinellifolium). This is a domesticated version of wild tomato plants originating in Mexico, and produces fruit measuring about one centimeter across. Red Currant is an indeterminate tomato, with a delicious, sweet taste. A malfunctioning drip line has has meant that our specimen probably did not get enough water, but nevertheless it has managed to produce fruit despite looking unhappy. If we had more than the paltry number we’ve produced, they’d make for a tasty addition to a salad. That malfunctioning drip line means that all we have is enough for the world’s smallest BLT. If only we could find a pig the size of a cellphone.

Bugs Ate My Garden

A letter from one of our readers:

“I just read the article on growing your own food. I have tried this but have had great difficulty with insect damage. I have tried some of the “natural” insecticides but they don’t seem to work very well. Two of the major problems I have are cutworms that snip off seedlings before they can get started, and a plague of small white snails which invade later in summer and devastate everything. I cannot use chemical pesticides due to my wife’s chemical sensitivities (nor would I want to pollute my garden with them). Any suggestions?”

Read the rest of the article at Reality Sandwich

Yet Another Lawn Rant

As if there weren’t enough reasons not to have a lawn, especially in the dry parts of the world where we live, let’s add another: gruesome accidents. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that over 117,000 folks in the United States made trips to the emergency room in 2007 because of lawn mowers.

We’ve witnessed first hand the power of lawn mowers. A neighbor of ours had his windshield shattered by a rock propelled by a mower blade. As the Orthopedic Surgeons note, “The energy transferred by a typical lawn mower blade is equivalent to being shot in the hand with a .357 Magnum pistol. A lawn mower can eject a piece of metal or wood up to 100 miles per hour.”

And manual push mowers? Surprisingly they resulted in 7,159 emergency room visits.

So remove the lawn. How? Two words for ya: sheet mulch.

Grow the Soil

Above, proof of the adage that you grow the soil not the plants. On the left a vigorous eggplant growing in high-end potting soil in a self-watering container. On the right a spindly, nitrogen starved specimen of the same variety of eggplant, planted at the same time, in our parkway garden. The container eggplant on the left is larger, has greener leaves and is obviously more healthy. The stunted eggplant on the right is the victim of depleted soil.

There’s some irony here. With our book release and press folks coming around to see things we’ve been doing too much planting and not paying enough attention to soil quality. Here’s two options we should have taken to help out that sickly eggplant in the raised bed (other than the expensive route of new potting soil):

1. Sheet Mulch

A concept from the permacultural toolbox, sheet mulching involves making a soil boosting lasagna consisting of a layer of compost or manure, newspaper to hold in moisture, and a thick application of mulch consisting of hay, stable bedding, or other bulk materials. Full instructions here via Agroforestry.net. See Toby Hemenway’s introductory permaculture guide Gaia’s Garden for a similar sheet mulching technique.

2. Cover Crop

An alternate soil building method would have been to simply give the beds a rest for a season and plant a nutrient-building and soil-busting mix of clovers and legumes. Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply has a nice selection of annual cover crops here. We used their dryland mix to deal with the bad soil in our front yard and we’ll re-sow it again this fall. Cover crops send down roots that break up soil, with the legumes used to fix nitrogen–it’s a great way to amend a large area with almost no work involved.

Here at Homegrown Evolution we don’t believe in tilling soil. Tilling soil disrupts the natural balance of soil microbes and minerals and requires hard physical labor, thus interfering with other important activities such as cocktail hours and general laying about. It’s better to let nature do the work for you. Both sheet mulching and cover crops mimic the way forests and chaparral ecosystems take care of themselves. In natural settings, leaves fall and stay in place (no ‘mow and blow’ guys in the forest!) and weeds do the tilling.