Homesteading Heresy: On Giving Up Vegetable Gardening

Eric Rochow of Garden Fork TV and I interviewed each other for our respective podcasts yesterday. Without giving too much away, we talked about the idea of mental de-cluttering: weeding out those activities in our lives that take a lot of time, tools and expense with less than stellar results. While it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of failed interests, perhaps it’s healthier to see that with one door closing another one opens.

I spent an hour yesterday pulling apart our last remaining raised vegetable bed. This bed had a caged top to keep the skunks from digging up seedlings. I called it “vegetable Guantanamo.” It took a lot of work to build and looked hideously ugly. Removing it was the first step in making some much needed aesthetic improvements to the our front yard. We plan on replacing it with two dwarf citrus trees: a kumquat and lemon.

I mentioned in a previous post my ambivalence about vegetable gardening. Frankly, I haven’t devoted the amount of attention the task deserves. It feels like a chore to me. Meanwhile, as shown in the picture above, vegetables happen without my intervention, in this case a cherry tomato plant that seeded itself and grew without irrigation while the tomatoes I planted, tended and watered withered and died. So while I don’t plan on growing annual vegetables in the near future, I’m certainly not going to get in the way of nature. If she grants us feral vegetables we’ll get out of the way and let them flourish. Maybe we’ll even throw some random seeds around and give nature a nudge.

If you love growing annual vegetables, go for it. But if you don’t, consider what you really want to do and focus on that. Maybe it’s embroidery, or writing or just hanging out with friends. I’m having a good time in the wood shop. I’ve also been working through the drawing lessons in Drawing From the Right Side of the Brain for the second time in twenty years, tackling some difficult books on my reading bucket list and I even sat through the entirety of the Ring of the Nibelungen. I say embrace whatever activity keeps you away from the addictive grasp of the Silicon Valley Übermenschen. Go plant some vegetables if you enjoy it but, at least in the near future, you’ll find me in produce aisle of Super King.

Straw Bale Gardening Update

I think I’ve put a name to an all to common gardening experience. I’ve got what I shall, from now on, refer to as Tomato Disappointment Syndrome or TDS for short. TDS recognizes a unspoken reality of vegetable gardening: that for every lush and productive tomato plant there exists at least ten spindly, diseased specimens hiding in backyards.

Without careful soil stewardship, just the right amount of water and diligence about not growing tomatoes in the same place every year TDS will visit your household. Since I’ve had tomato disease problems for years I decided to grow them in straw bales this season as I did, successfully, back in 2013.

Unfortunately, my straw bale tomatoes succumbed to one of three possible problems:

  • Improperly conditioned bale. I may not have spent enough time adding nitrogen to the bale.
  • Root-bound seedlings.
  • Herbicides in the straw.

I’m leaning towards a lack of nitrogen caused by not following bale conditioning instructions carefully. Herbicides in the bale are also possible or some combination of all three of the above factors.

Allow me to also theorize, building on the foundation of TDS, that success in vegetable gardening is inversely related to one’s propensity to brag, write or boast about vegetable gardening on, say, a blog or social media account. Perhaps I should just shut up and take care of the soil or pay more attention to my bale conditioning efforts and cease the grandstanding.

Grafted Tomatoes: Hope for the Frustrated Home Gardener?


If you, like me, managed to kill all your tomatoes this summer you might want to try grafted tomatoes next season. Grafted tomatoes benefit from pathogen resistant rootstock (Maxifort is the most common rootsock variety).

A literature review “Yield and fruit quality of grafted tomatoes, and their potential for soil fumigant use reduction. A meta-analysis” by Michael L. Grieneisen, Brenna J. Aegerter, C. Scott Stoddard and Minghua Zhang came to the conclusion,

Grafted tomatoes show promise to reduce the usage of various soilborne pathogen treatments, with 33% of commercial tomato rootstocks either resistant or highly resistant to seven or more common soilborne pathogens. Our approach integrated trial data from around the world, though limitations in available data complicated our analysis of relationships between some experimental variables and fruit yields and quality.

While this research focused on commercial growers I suspect grafted tomatoes might be a good option for us backyard tomato enthusiasts. If you, like us, lack the space to rotate your tomato growing year to year, pathogens can build up in the soil. Grafted tomatoes, while not a magic pill or an excuse for poor soil stewardship, might be a worthwhile experiment.

I attempted to graft my own tomatoes a few years ago and failed miserably. I would recommend outsourcing this task unless you’re a seasoned garden geek with a greenhouse.

The research also showed that there’s little difference in taste between grafted and non-grafted tomatoes,

Concerns that grafting might contribute to inferior fruit quality (pH, titratable acidity, total soluble solids, lycopene, vitamin C, firmness, “taste”) seem unfounded in general, though isolated cases show dramatic differences.

There’s more work needed to find the optimal rootstock/scion combo.

Have you tried grafted tomatoes? Leave a comment with your results.

A Celebration of Craft

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

The highlight of the National Heirloom Expo, for me, was running into three people who epitomize the value of dedication to a craft.

I’ve found that such craftspersons keep no secrets and are more than happy talk about techniques and tips. They are also, according to Matthew Crawford, an antidote to our culture’s narcissism. Crawford says, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence. A repairman, on the other hand, puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding. For this very reason, his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.

The trio of craftspersons I ran into at the expo included a baker, a tomato farmer and a nursery owner. They share common qualities: humility, openness and an attention to detail.

The baker is Dave Miller who I helped bring to LA to teach a series of classes. Miller specializes in whole grain breads made from freshly milled local grain. Most “whole grain” loaves baked in this country are actually white flour with food coloring, sugar and a small amount of stale whole grain flour. Miller can turn wet, sticky whole grain lumps into perfectly formed, airy loaves with one deft flick of the wrist. He has the skill to build an empire the size of La Brea Bakery but is happy working at a smaller scale selling loaves at the Chico farmer’s market once a week. I think he’s the most talented baker in the U.S.

I also ran into tomato farmer and breeder Fred Hempel who was a guest on episode 79 of our podcast. Like Miller, Hempel has a humility that goes along with a sincere engagement with the natural world. Like Miller he’s more than happy to discuss his craft.

A third person I met at the festival is Alice Doyle, owner of Log House Plants a wholesale nursery in Eugene Oregon. In her lecture she went alphabetically through a list of edible plants she thought were interesting. By the end of the hour, I think she reached the letter “J.” I wished we could have had a few more hours to get to “Z.” And this is another quality of the craftsperson, a selfless enthusiasm that can turn a list of vegetables into something way more interesting than what passes for entertainment in our culture. I’ll see if I can get Doyle on the podcast.

We are, I think, entering a dangerous new age of extreme narcissism fueled, in part, by Silicon Valley tech bros who have figured out a business model based on self-affirmation. We need more people like Miller, Hempel and Doyle.

Tomato Grafting Fail

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The results are in on the tomato grafting project I last wrote about in July and they aren’t pretty. The plants grew slowly and reluctantly. The tomatoes had blossom end rot and were inedible. I even managed to attract tomato hornworms for the first time ever.

Two early mistakes led to subsequent problems. First, I should have purchased or made a seed starting mix rather than the potting soil I used. I ended up with weak seedlings. Secondly, I did not manage the post-graft period well. Having a greenhouse within which to create a “healing chamber” for the grafted plants would have made the process much easier.

Since I have no space or desire to build a greenhouse I’m, most likely, going to give up on attempting to graft my own tomatoes. I did this project out of a geeky sense of fun but it resulted in a summer with no homegrown tomatoes and that’s a life not worth living.

A better project, for our climate, would be to figure out how to grow tomatoes with little or no supplemental water. The feral tomatoes on the side of my mom’s house prove this is possible. For years, we also used to have volunteer cherry tomatoes along a wall now dominated by a massive Vitus californica vine. Next year I’m going to keep things simple, choose a drought tolerant tomato from Native Seed Search and plant it directly in the ground early in the season.

How did your tomatoes do this year? What kind did you grow?