How’s that Tomato Grafting Project Going?

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Back in the winter I announced my plans to graft my own tomatoes. I undertook the project more in a spirit of idle curiosity than necessity. We haven’t had the sort of soil problems that might require grafted tomatoes but I thought it would be fun to try.

To graft tomatoes you grow a hardy root stock (I chose Maxifort) and the tomatoes you want to graft them on to. You then make the graft and secure it with a grafting clip. For the grafting process I used the directions in the following video from Cornell University:

The next step is to put the grafted seedlings into a “healing chamber” consisting of a dark, warm and humid environment that gives the plant a chance to heal and the graft to take. You then slowly introduce light over a period of days to transition the grafted plant to normal growing conditions.

What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s just say that at Root Simple Labs mistakes were made.

  • The root stock grew a lot faster than the heirloom tomatoes I chose. When you graft you want similarly sized stems. It would have been good to stagger the days I started my seeds rather than planting them all at one time.
  • The healing chamber needs to be a carefully controlled environment. I improvised a greenhouse by putting my seedlings in plastic bags. This worked but I had trouble re-introducing light in a uniform way. Grow lights would make this easier. And it was a pain to open all the individual bags to mist the plants.
  • Because of my lack of stem sizes to choose from I ended up with graft unions too close to the soil level. Of the six plants that survived my horticultural incompetence, I think they all may just be growing from the graft union itself rather than the root stock. I’m hoping that I can tell when I pull the plants at the end of the season.
  • I used potting soil rather than a seed starting mix. That’s just plain stupid. What was I thinking?
  • Next time I’ll get a selection of grafting clips in different sizes. That would give some flexibility in when to graft the plants.

Despite my cascade of errors I still have tomato plants (though probably not grafted ones) and I learned some valuable lessons should I attempt this project again next year. I’m thinking that instead of tomatoes, which have done fine in our garden in the past, I might try grafting peppers or eggplants which we have had trouble growing.

How are your tomatoes doing this summer? Are any of you growing grafted varieties?

Going to Seed

radish podsTidiness is a very pleasant thing inside a house. Outside, in a yard or garden, it’s not at all a good thing. I’m really tired of the cult of tidy.

We seem to be confused. We conflate our yards with our living rooms, the space beneath our shrubs for kitchen floors. Popular opinion seems to believe our flower and vegetable gardens should be maintained like trophy rooms, like curio cases.

Our mistake, of course, is thinking that everything is about us. That our yard, our garden, our little patch of land actually belongs to us and we have the right to maintain it exactly as we like. We might own it on paper, but we share it with hundreds, thousands, millions (if you want to get into soil biology) of other lives.

Of course, if we maintain our yards to exact standards of tidiness–say our yard consists of a lawn and some shrubs along the drive with the dirt beneath them blown clean, we probably are not supporting much life at all. We’ve put up the No Trespassing sign, and creatures listen.

front bed seedy 2It gets even more sparse if we spray herbicides and pesticides all over the place. All of the invisible life vanishes. Any creatures which visit are just passing through.

The land is eerily silent.

But life is waiting to come back. That is what is so amazing. It jumps back if given even half a chance. If you open the door just a crack.

All we have to do is sit back and relax.

Stop with the obsessive yard work.

Stop paying the yard crew.

Stop spraying chemicals around.

Just stop.

Leave the leaves. Let fallen leaves and pulled weeds stay on the land to protect and nourish the soil.

Let volunteers bloom.

Let your garden go to seed.

mustard seedyIf we live with fussy neighbors, or under the impression that our gardens should look like the ones in the magazines, we might work hard to keep our vegetable and flower gardens impeccable, starting seedlings in advance to replace aging plants so there’s never any sense of “decline” in the garden.

I’ve always let parts of our garden go to seed, but this year, more than ever, I’m attuned to it. I’m reveling in the beauty in it, and I’m understand the generosity of it down deep, on the soul level.

lettuce bloomingIn the past I struggled to leave the plants as long as I could stand it, knowing they were doing good in their later life cycle, but also feeling like my yellow, straggly garden made me look lazy or incompetent.

I was also acutely aware of the long gaps between harvests that would occur if I waited for plants to go to seed before replacing them. Now, I’ve given up all that anxiety, and I revel in this time.

The insects feast on the flowers which bloom on our lettuce, our arugula, our radishes, our mustard, our fennel. Predatory wasps hunt alongside lady bugs and diligent bees of all types.

argula flowerWe have more birds than ever in our yard, and they love our overgrown, browning beds, because of course they’re eating the seeds or the bugs on the ripening plants. They would not, however, allow me to take any pictures of them doing these things.

They love all the weedy places, the vacant lots and over grown side yards. Those places are full of flashing wings and trilling songs. It’s already a seed time of year here in LA on our fast moving calendar, and I’m watching the birds feast. I love watching the little finches balancing on thin, swaying plant stalks in the golden light of the afternoon. The world is full of moments of perfect, unconscious beauty like that.

Once the seeds are eaten, and the plants are brown and empty, I cut the stalks down at their base, but I don’t throw anything away. Everything stays in the yard, on or in the ground. The plant which fed us and the bee and the finch will now finish its work feeding the soil. Feeding the soil is its deepest work.

And–never worry!– some seed always manages to hit the ground despite all the competition, ensuring volunteers will come up next year, and feed us all again.

radish pods 2An aside:

One area where I have to admit that I am less than generous is in the matter of radish seed pods. These I don’t leave for the birds, because I like them so much.

Most of you gardeners are probably very familiar with radish seed pods. If you aren’t, they are the fat little pods that show up after a radish plant of any type goes to seed.

They taste like radishes, pretty much, sometimes they’re sweeter, sometimes they’re spicier. Radish pods are both a bonus crop and a fine consolation prize, because even if your radish roots end up puny or woody or otherwise disappointing, you can always eat the pods. They’re best fresh, picked a handful at a time as a snack or to put in a salad, but you can lactoferment or pickle them, too, using pretty much any pickle recipe you prefer.

Erik Talks Straw Bales on C-Realm Radio

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KMO with his new straw bale garden.

Instead of producing our own podcast this week, I had the honor of being on C-Realm Radio in Vermont, hosted by my favorite podcaster (and, as of last month, radio host) KMO. The topic is straw bale gardening. KMO talks first to straw bale garden expert Joel Karsten. Then I chime in enthusiastically on the topic. I’m followed by gardener and artist Lauren Blair. We’re all sort of an opening act for an entertaining 1990s era recording of Terrance McKenna thoughtstyling about “linguistic objects”.

One interesting point that Karsten raises is the issue of persistent herbicides in straw bales. He says its not a problem to worry about. I suggest doing an bioassay to rule out the possibility so, in a way, we contradict each other. Karsten may be right, but I need to do some more research on the subject. If any of you know if persistent herbicides, such as Clopyralid, Aminopyralid, Aminocyclopyrachlor and Picloram, are still an issue for gardeners, please let me know in the comments.

Coffee Grounds in the Garden

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According to a handy fact sheet from Washington State University, Coffee grounds will buzz your garden. Coffee grounds build humus, boost nitrogen, phosphorus and zinc, bind pesticides and toxins, prevent bacterial and fungal infections and feed earthworms. Authored by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor, this peer-reviewed pamphlet also provides a set of suggestions for using coffee grounds in the garden:

  • Coffee grounds should be composted before used as a soil amendment but can be used fresh as a mulch.
  • Fresh grounds are phytotoxic, so keep them away from direct contact with roots.
  • Coffee grounds will not necessarily make your soil more acidic.
  • Don’t use coffee grounds where you are starting seeds.
  • Despite rumors, coffee grounds do not repel pests.
  • Let coffee grounds cool before adding to compost bin so you don’t kill beneficial microbes. And don’t let coffee grounds amount to more than 20% of your compost pile.
  • Don’t add coffee grounds to vermicomposting bins.

If you’re using coffee grounds as a mulch Chalker-Scott has two suggestions:

  • Apply a thin layer (no more than half an inch) of coffee grounds. Cover with a thicker layer (four inches) of coarse organic mulch like wood chips (Chalker-Scott 2015). This will protect the coffee grounds from compaction.
  • Don’t apply thick layers of coffee grounds as a standalone mulch. Because they are finely textured and easily compacted, coffee grounds can interfere with moisture and air movement in soils.

Rucola Selvatica A Foglia D’ulivo: the arugula you’ve never heard of

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If I could boil down my vegetable gardening advice to one sentence it would probably be: just grow stuff that does well and tastes good. Let some other schmuck fight aphids on those Brussels sprouts. Another bit of advice is that you can never have enough arugula. The stuff at the market is wilted, tasteless crap. Grow your own and you’ve got an incredible diversity of arugula varieties to choose from.

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This year I grew two varieties from Franchi, Rucola Coltivata Sel. Ortolani and Rucola Selvatica A Foglia D’ulivo. Arugula falls into two categories, “wild” and “cultivated,” though since a seed company is cultivating and selling “wild” varieties it does seem strange to call them “wild”. It might be more accurate to describe them by taste with the cultivated varieties being mild tasting and the wild types being sharp and spicy. Plants in the Brassicaceae family such as arugula cross readily and there’s a befuddling array of popular names, but I think both of these varieties are Eruca sativa.

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The Rucola Selvatica A Foglia D’Ulivo or olive leaf arugula has a much sharper, almost bitter flavor. It also doesn’t look like the cultivated varieties. Were it not for the distinctive taste, I wouldn’t even recognize the plant. The leaves are indeed shaped like olive leaves and the edible flowers are yellow rather than the usual off-white.

I sow blocks of arugula seed every two weeks in the winter to guarantee a continuous supply. We had some hot weather so it went to seed a little faster than usual. One of the reasons I like arugula is that there are no insect problems, at least here in Los Angeles.

My mom’s late Greek neighbor used to grow at least four varieties of arugula every year and treasured the different flavors. He also used to refer to arugula (and many other greens) as the “Greek Viagra.” There is, apparently, a history of the use of arugula as an aphrodisiac in Mediterranean cultures. According to some sources, you have to cut the arugula with lettuce (a calming plant) so that the salad bowl doesn’t lead too directly to the bedroom.

Find more arugula varieties at growitalian.com.

Do you have a favorite arugula? As usual, I love hearing from our Italian readers about the special culinary uses of specific varieties. And, in this election year here in the US, I’m a little surprised that arugula has not come up as a campaign issue like it did in 2008.