Vegetable Gardening With Dogs

We love all dogs and live with an elderly Doberman Pincher. But gardening with dogs can definitely have its challenges, especially when your trusted companion has a taste for heirloom tomatoes. On the right, the aftermath of one of our dog’s nightly tomato raids, this time targeting our healthiest and most productive vine, a variety called Giant Syrian. The dog has managed to claim all but a few of the tomatoes off this vine, knocking off many unripe ones in the process. FYI, the Giant Syrian tomato is our favorite variety this year, producing large, flavorful and meaty fruit. Hopefully the Doberman will leave a few for us. [Update: an alert reader has pointed out that tomatoes are toxic to canines. The ASPCA says that the green parts are toxic, but others claim that both the ripe and unripe fruit are also a problem.]

On the subject of tomatoes, here’s a very beautiful and useful website with pictures and descriptions of many heirloom tomato and vegetable varieties: the Heirloom Vegetable Archive.

In August, Way Too Much Squash

On the left a zucchini. Do I need to say anything about zucchini? What to do with it, perhaps, since prodigiousness is the zucchini’s modus operandi, but that bottomless subject would be best left to the proprietor of a an all zucchini blog. Rather, let’s take a brief look at the specimen on the right.

Meet the awkwardly named Early Prolific Straightneck Summer Squash. It’s an open pollinated heirloom variety named as an “All-America Selection” in 1938 (AAS is kind of like a dog show for seeds run by the National Garden Bureau). We grew our EPS from Botanical Interests seeds we got at our local nusery.

Our EPS squash has lived up to its name, having grown rapidly, producing tasty summer squash with a zucchini-like flavor and consistency. Unfortunately, all squash that we have grown here has been subject to powdery mildew, a white fungus that spreads rapidly across the leaves of the plant. Our coastal climate, with hot days and cool, moist nights is not the optimal growing climate for squash, which prefer dryer conditions. We’re not big on spraying stuff (even if it’s harmless–we’re also cheap and lazy), so next summer season we’ll search out varieties resistant to mildew. For those of you who are also cursed by mildew, here’s a list from the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension (PDF) of mildew resistant squash and pumpkin varieties.

So now, dear readers, please tell us what the hell are you doing with all that squash you grew this summer . . .

A White House Vegetable Garden

Via a post by Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing, one man’s plea to turn the White House lawn into a kitchen garden:

I’ll note that the last person to try to convince a president to plant veggies was the always forward thinking Alice Waters, the proprietor of Berkeley California’s Chez Panisse. Waters asked then president Bill Clinton to grow some vegetables at the White House. Clinton responded, “send me the seeds Alice” only to renege on the idea, claiming that it would interfere with the historic and formal White House garden plans. But what about that White House putting green?

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom broke ground this summer on a kitchen garden at city hall. Former mayor “slick” Willie Brown responded lamely, “You start having cows and chickens and goats and other things at Civic Center and I’m not sure it’s a good idea.” We’ll see if the next president, whoever he is, has the courage to plant veggies. I would love to see a goat interrupt a press conference.

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.

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.

Dookie in the Tomatoes

Our first tomatoes of the season are just beginning to ripen, coinciding nicely with the multi-state cow poo in the roma scare. Allow me to speculate wildly about the cause of the current epidemic, tracing the cause step by step from the beginning:

1. We begin not with the tomato farm, but instead with manure from that wonder of industrialized agriculture, the concentrated feed lot, where thousands of cattle stew in their own filth. Immunosuppressed cattle on these feed lots act as ideal Petri dishes for all kinds of diseases including salmonella. At these massive operations, cattle feed on corn even though, biologically, they were meant to eat grass. To counter the deleterious effects of feeding them the wrong food, they are pumped full of antibiotics which, due to the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest, creates new generations of antibiotic resistant infections. Concentrating them so close together further facilitates the spread of exotic strains of all manor of nasty things including salmonella.

2. Manure from the feed lot either runs off accidentally onto a neighboring tomato farm or is exported as fertilizer intentionally. At some point, manure gets on a tomato, either on the farm or after being shipped.

3. A salmonella infected tomato arrives at a centralized packing facility where it is loaded into a massive water bath by underpaid workers to mingle with thousands of other tomatoes. The water bath acts as our second salmonella Petri dish along the tomato’s path to our table. Alternately, a blade used to automatically slice tomatoes gets infected with salmonella, thereby spreading the bug to all the other pre-sliced tomatoes headed to the food assemblers (a more accurate term than “chef”) at America’s fast food establishments.

4. After leaving the packing facility, Salmonella infected tomatoes get shipped all over the country and perhaps the world, thereby sentencing thousands of people to multi-day commode-sitting hell. Some immunosuppressed folks, sadly, die.

5. The government announces, acting in the interest of the big agricultural players, “our food system is actually safer than ever”, and congratulates themselves for their quick diagnoses of the exact strain of salmonella and its source–in this case, tomatoes processed by careless workers at a packing facility. Hearings ensue, and a few months later they announce a new series of bizarre regulations. Tomato packing facility washing equipment must now be maintained at the precise temperature of 163ยบ F for 5.375 minutes minimum. Problem solved. Mainstream journalists move on to the next hot topic.

Now I could be completely incorrect in my assumptions about this month’s tomato scare–it’s just a guess. But let me offer a few solutions that would take care of the problem no matter what caused this most recent outbreak:

1. If you can, grow your own tomatoes and make your own fertilizer. Yes, it’s possible (but a lot less likely) to get salmonella from your own home grown produce, but at least you and your family will be the only one infected.

2. Support small family farms. Again, a small family farm could cause a salmonella outbreak, but it would effect far fewer people. Decentralization at all points in the agricultural supply chain is the solution to greater food security, not further concentration. Unfortunately our government is on the take from the big players and promulgates regulations that make it impossible for small family farmers to make a living. Read Joel Salatin’s book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal” for more on how agricultural regulations are at the heart of our food safety problems.

3. Don’t wash produce until just before it is prepared. At it turns out, washing upsets the natural balance of harmful and beneficial bacteria present on fresh produce. Food microbiologist Keith Warriner has found that a beneficial bacteria called Enterobacter keeps salmonella in check. Wash off the Enterobacter and salmonella thrives (read more on this theory at New Scientist). The same holds for washing eggs–bad idea.

I count myself very fortunate to have a bit of land to grow some tomatoes and feel sorry for those who don’t have this luxury. I wish more journalists would spin this story as a reason to build more community gardens and allow apartment dwellers to grow some food on the roof. It leaves me eating that big juicy roma tomato, pictured above, with all the smugness of a Prius driver in the HOV lane.

Garlic!

Our parkway guerrilla garden, profiled in last week’s Los Angeles Times article, which is now linked on BoingBoing, yielded up an impressive garlic harvest this season.

Garlic is one of the easiest crops for us to grow here in Southern California. You just take the large, outer ring of cloves from store-bought garlic and stick them in the ground with the pointed side up interspersed throughout your other plantings–wherever you have some room. We plant them around Thanksgiving and harvest in late May/early June when the stalks begin to turn brown and fall over. After you harvest your garlic, don’t wash it just knock the dirt off, then let it “cure” with the stalks and roots intact in a dry place inside until the stalks are entirely brown. Premature cutting of stalks or roots can lead to rot. After your garlic is dry then you can trim it to just the bulbs and store it somewhere cool and dark (not the fridge!). We’re going to put ours in a double brown bag in our strange subterranean garage–a cellar or basement would also work.

With our mild winters and warm summers, California is the ideal place to grow garlic, but there are special varieties for cold climates that you can mail order. The University of Minnesota Extension has a nice page on growing garlic in cold places.

A Mystery Philippine Vegetable

Some TV folks were here to interview us about guerrilla gardening, following up on the story that mentioned us in the LA Times this week. We did the interview down in the parkway next to our illegal street-side vegetable garden. I nattered on about reclaiming wasted space, staying in touch with nature, the value of homegrown food, dodging the authorities and knowing where your carrots come from. I harvested for the camera, an unimpressive string bean and two small cucumbers.

On a whim, I suggested that we visit the parkway garden that inspired us to plant our own. Just two blocks away, this parkway garden is the handiwork of a retired couple from the Philippines. As luck would have it, the couple pulled up during our interview. Julie (I’m afraid I can’t spell her last name) stepped out of her car and proceeded to give us a tour of her “guerrilla” garden, talking about–guess what–reclaiming wasted space, staying in touch with nature, the value of homegrown food, dodging the authorities and knowing where your bitter melon comes from. The only differences between our two spiels–the bitter melon, and Julie’s lack of Generation X irony and a blog.

I think the TV folks were hoping for something more telegenic, sexy and radical, to fit the “guerrilla gardening” story, like say the image on the left. They were, perhaps, less excited by some ordinary middle-aged to elderly residents of Echo Park passionately talking about vegetables.

Their loss our gain. As a parting gift Julie gave us this leafy green whose name, I’m afraid, I can neither pronounce nor remember. She told us to parboil it and season with soy sauce. Any guesses readers as to what this is?