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Thinking like a plant

Books-Vegetable gardening in the Southeast-smallGarden Primer bookBarbara Damrosch states, early in her 633-page Garden Primer book, that “Good gardening is very simple, really.  You just have to learn to think like a plant.”

One of the challenges of learning to think like a plant is that not all plants think alike.

When you’re wondering how best to take care of a particular crop, the first question you’ll ask yourself might be “Where can I find good instructions?”  You might, for example, start by looking at the cultural notes in our catalog, or by looking in the “Edibles A to Z” section of Ira Wallace’s book Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast, or Barbara’s Garden Primer.

Another question to ask yourself is, “What do I know about the needs and habits of this plant’s relatives?”  Plants tend to be similar to their relatives in terms of the conditions they need for germination or fruit set, the relationships they form with soil microbes, the strategies they use to spread their seed, and many other factors.

For example, if you know that luffas are related to pumpkins and cucumbers, you can guess that growing luffas will be more similar to growing pumpkins or cucumbers than to growing tomatoes.

photos mid fall 2011 177 luffa stages
Left to right, the progression of luffas from flower bud to mature fruit: buds, flower, baby fruit with spent petals still attached, edible young fruits, intermediate-maturity fruits, and mature fruits for retting and use as sponges.

Luffas (also called loofahs), like most crops in the squash (cucurbit) family:

  • prefer dryer soil than most other plants, particularly while seeds are germinating
  • have delicate root systems, but can be transplanted with care
  • can sprawl or climb
  • use tendrils to cling to surrounding plants or structures
  • have flowers that are very attractive to bees
  • have separate male flowers and female flowers on androgynous plants
  • are easily killed by frost

If I was sending a soil test to a lab and wanted a recommendation on whether to amend the soil before planting luffas, I’d check the box of another crop in their family (assuming luffas aren’t on the list).  If I was worried that an insect might be attacking my luffa crop, I’d run through a mental list of the insects that I’ve known to attack other crops in its family. If I wanted to make a guess at which nutrients are abundant in luffas (when picked small for eating), I’d start by looking up which nutrients are abundant in other cucurbits that are also harvested before the seeds mature, like cucumbers or summer squash.  If I wanted to  harvest pure, market-worthy seeds from one variety of luffa, I’d plant it at least 1/2 mile from any other varieties of the same species of luffa, based on the similar isolation distances recommended for harvesting reliably pure seeds of other cucurbits.

However, any plant will have some significant differences from its relatives.  For example, most cucurbits set their seeds in a wet environment, but luffas set their seed in a dry environment.  Thus the techniques we use to clean luffa seeds are very different from those we use for most seeds in the cucurbit family.

It might be tempting to focus your gardening efforts on one family, grow lots of its members, and really learn how they think.  But diversity of plant families in your garden is one aspect of agrobiodiversity, and will help ensure that the bugs or diseases that like one of your crops won’t like too many of your crops.  It’s also important to rotate your crops, and like many farmers and gardeners, we organize our crop rotation according to plant family.

For an easy way to learn which plants are in which families, take a look at our illustrated list of the predominant plant families in American gardens.

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VABF Conference Wrap

VABF John Boyd
John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association

Last weekend I got to attend my first Virginia Biological Farming Conference, not just as a participant, but as part of the team making it happen, the Tradeshow Coordinator. If you have any interest in organic farming/gardening, I highly recommend going next year. There were fascinating talks on a wide range of topics, great exhibits from a variety of vendors and organizations, and the food was unbelievable.

Some highlights:

  • Southern Exposure teamed up with Seed Savers Exchange for an all day special seed saving pre-conference workshop. I had to duck in and out while setting up for the exhibits, but I still learned so much!
  • Nazirakh Amen of Purple Mountain Organics gave a talk about his rice farming project on University of DC land. In addition to being a farmer and tool vendor, Nazirakh is a Chinese medical practitioner with extraordinary insights to impart.
  • Rodger Lenhardt of Norm’s Farms brought his fabulous elderberry products. He traded us some syrup (great against coughs and as an immune-booster) and jam, and I now have three little elderberry sticks on my windowsill happily sprouting roots.

    Rodger Lenhardt with his elderberry wares
    Rodger Lenhardt with his elderberry wares
  • Debbie Roos of the NC Cooperative Extension got me all fired up about pollinators and what we can do to attract and protect them. Look for pollinator blog posts soon!
  • Did I mention the food? The food alone was worth going to this conference for. There were contributions from local farms at every meal, but best of all was the giant pot luck lunch. Let’s just say I regretted that I was wearing a corset.

    So much yummy food!
    So much yummy food!

Underdog Tomatoes

At Southern Exposure we carry a lot of tomatoes  — 110 as of this year’s catalog!  We carry ones that we like and that grow well.  It’s always gratifying to see varieties that we’ve helped introduce, such as Cherokee Purple, OTV Brandywine, and Amy’s Apricot, go on to sell well and find their way to many other gardens.

Aug2014 (806) tomato assortment prcsd

But there are also some personal favorites of ours that never get as much appreciation as we’d like; this blog post spotlights a couple of them.

Green Grape is a cherry tomato that never gets as much attention as its more famous cousin, Green Zebra.  I’ve got more of a sweet tooth, so when it comes to tomatoes, one like Green Zebra is a bit too tart for me to really enjoy.  Green Grape is a sweeter variety and has an interesting flavor that’s described as being like muscatel.  (I don’t drink alcohol, so one of these days I’ll have to get around to sipping some muscatel to see if it reminds me of Green Grape!)  It’s got big, plump cherry fruits that ripen from green to green-yellow.  Since that’s an unusual color it’s hard to know when they’re ripe. To figure out when they’re ready to eat, feel the first fruits as they ripen. When they’re softening and plumping up, try a few.  Once you’ve figured it out, you’re good to go for the rest of the season.

Oct 2012 (59) Green Grape prcsd

Another great thing about Green Grape is that it’s a semi-determinate (bush type) plant.  Almost all the tomatoes we carry are indeterminates, so it’s a rare treat to find such a short plant with great tasting fruits.  (The Dwarf Tomato Project is working to improve this situation, and besides Rosella Purple, we hope to grow a few more dwarf varieties for seed this year.)

Folks often think Green Grape and Green Zebra are heirlooms because of their unusual color, but both of these are more recent; they were bred by Tom Wagner in the ’80s.  Tom is a passionate tomato breeder, and continues to this day working on all kinds of unusual new varieties. Besides being great for eating fresh, a great way to serve these is to serve sliced fruits with pesto pasta.

Yellow Bell is a Tennessee family heirloom.  It’s a sauce tomato — more juicy than a Roma tomato, so it needs more cooking to get a thick sauce.  But its juiciness means it has great flavor as a slicing tomato as well.

090507 615 prcsd

I first grew Yellow Bell when I was in southern Missouri, and was always super impressed with how well the plants held up.  By late September when most other tomatoes had given up, Yellow Bell was still chugging along — all the way up ‘til frost I’d be getting big handfuls of fruit off the plants.

090507 617 croppedYellow tomatoes like Yellow Bell make for really pretty salsa – wish we had a photo handy I could show off here! – and yellow tomato sauce with chunks of green and red pepper is gorgeous as well!

And to end this on a humorous note – a woman from southwest Virginia recently sent us seed for a tomato that sounds similar to Yellow Bell, but which their family called Bag tomato.   As she wrote, her mother-in-law “called it Bag tomato because its shape reminded her of a man’s scrotum. (No vulgarity intended.)”  We really liked her mother-in-law’s reassurance!  We haven’t had the chance yet, but hope to soon grow out both Bag and Yellow Bell next to each other to see if they’re similar.