A word about GMOs from our visiting GP

I gave a talk to a group of gardeners last year about vegetable and community gardening.  There was a wide variety of gardening experience represented, but one statement from a seasoned gardener bothered me a bit.  And I think my response bothered him a bit too.  I haven’t thought much about it until recently, when a high school English teacher I know told me a student expressed similar ideas in her class.  The erroneous idea from my audience member was this: our tomatoes are being poisoned with ‘germetically modinified’…something something.  The arguments have lost me beyond that (because there aren’t any).  And really, there hasn’t been much talk about sex on this blog recently, so that should be remedied too.  Therefore, I would like to take the platform offered by the Garden Professors to talk about plant breeding.

 

 

Fig. 1: Jaune flammee, which has at least one gene from at least one of its parents that causes the fruit to have very little lycopene.

Conventional” breeding is when a plant breeder selects parents and offspring and tests them for desirable characteristics (traits).  It works the same way as breeding works in nature, except that we humans have a goal we’re working toward.  Firm, 5-oz, disease-resistant, crack-resistant tomatoes, for example.  In nature, the offspring that survive and reproduce the best in a given environment are ‘blindly’ selected and tend to stick around (Darwin, 1859).  Male (sperm) cells are transferred to female (egg) cells by a plant breeder, or a bee, or the wind, or a beetle, or a fly or bird or bat or moth (etc.).  The sperm and egg fuse to form an embryo, which grows to become what we’d call a plant.  In both natural and artificial selection of tomatoes, no non-tomato DNA has been added, and no tomato DNA has been removed.  By the classical definition of ‘genetic modification’, there has been none.  I suppose this paragraph was only incidentally about sex, and probably a disappointment to some.  Sorry.

Fig. 2.  Tainan, a tiny heirloom

The confusion of the issue may lie with the Flavr Savr tomato.  This was developed (yes, genetically modified) in the mid-90’s to resist softening during ripening.  It has a couple bits of manufactured DNA in it to make this possible.  The Flavr Savr is no longer grown or sold in the marketplace (that was SO 1990’s), and to my knowledge, no other transgenic tomatoes are either.

 

Fig. 3.  Rutgers, historically much-cultivated and like all other tomatoes we can buy, bred conventionally.

Confusion may also lie with the plant hormone ethylene.  Ethylene is made from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, but it’s also made by plants.  Keep your bananas away from your carnations, right?  Bananas make ethylene gas, which causes carnations and snapdragons to senesce (die).  Tomatoes make ethylene as they ripen.  If you harvest tomatoes a bit early, but not too early, they are hard enough to ship but will still turn red later.  If you expose these pre-ripened tomatoes to ethylene gas, they will ripen more quickly and uniformly.  That’s what happens to a lot of the tomatoes in our stores.  They are not genetically modified, they are treated with a plant hormone.  That’s not unusual at all.  Ethylene is used to ripen bananas, and to help make cucumber seeds (by eliminating male flowers from female parents).  It’s used in growing ornamental plants quite a bit too (but not as much as many other hormones, and especially hormone inhibitors).

So please, if you are someone who tells anybody who will listen that the tomatoes in the store are GMOs, stop it.  They’re not.

The Hottest Thing in…Veg!

Vegetable transplants and herbs were a bright spot last year (and the one previous) for most retail growers and independent garden centers.  Seed and transplant companies have taken note – saw lots of veg and herbs at the normally-ornamental trade shows.  As always, some good ideas, some a bit far-fetched…

Pelleted lettuce seed (much easier to handle) mixes for the grower to create patio-size planters. Not bad! Snipping a few leaves will be fine, but if you eat salad more than once a month, you’re gonna need a bigger pot.

Basil and Swiss Chard plugs (seedlings), grown by Rakers Acres in Michigan, and shipped to greenhouse growers for “bumping up” to bigger pots to sell.

Saw lots of garden center marketing ideas such as this one from Burpee. Unfortunately, I have a very strong aversion to the word “fixins.”

Oh just stop it. An onion, in a pot. What the heck are you supposed to do with that?!

Animal, Vegetable, Irritable

I’m a big Barbara Kingsolver fan. Just finished “Prodigal Summer” – her tall, lanky, introverted, 40-something forest ranger-heroine encounters handsome, mysterious, much younger guy in the woods; sparks fly, etc.  Rowr!  Ahem.

I really enjoyed “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” when it came out a couple of years ago. It was the perfect dead-of-winter read as she captured flawlessly the itch to grow things, the scent of thawing soil, the joys of mud, the overwhelming greenness of spring, the mess of canning tomatoes. I was only slightly annoyed at the quiet pace and perfectness of her home life;  as a normal working stiff I don’t have time to bake my own bread daily, or make fresh mozzarella every time we have pizza for dinner (darn this time-consuming, bill-paying job).

But I was totally mesmerized by the cover art – her daughter’s cupped hands filled with the most beautiful shelled beans in the world. The huge maroon and white Christmas Limas shined like leguminous jewels.  Now THAT I can do.

So, Dr. Miss Smartypants here devoted an entire row to them this spring – about twenty feet with plants spaced on one-foot centers and a 20’ x 6’ span of netting for them to scramble up. The second 20’ row was planted with red and green yard-long beans (see my previous post about how fabulous they are).   Both rows received the same amount of irrigation (a little), weeding (some), and zero additional fertilizer except the pre-plant amendment of chicken poop (of which we have a lot).  

Summer wore on, life got busier. The yard-long beans just kept coming despite drought, stinkbugs and 3’ tall lambsquarters.  I’d poke around wistfully in the Christmas Lima vines – there were a few green pods buried amongst copious foliage. I do know these kinds of beans do better in hotter, drier climates, but it’s been pretty much that kind of summer here.

The pods finally, FINALLY filled out a bit and turned dry and brown – ready to pick!! I filled most of a five-gallon bucket and sat down with a beer to shell them (OSHA requirement).  

Behold, my bounty!

 

Total yield: one mess of beans. Two if used as soup components. Yes, they’re listed with Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.  Yes, they are indeed beautiful and will probably be totally delicious whenever I get the nerve up to cook them.

It’s just… I’m not sure how to put this… but a family of four would BLOODY WELL STARVE if they devoted much of their garden to these lovelies. I don’t know whether to eat them, frame them, or string them onto a necklace.

p.s. still getting yard-longs by the handful…

Maybe the handful was all Barbara got, too

The Approach Graft

Seeing as this blog is called “The Garden Professors” it has been far too long since we’ve given you a lecture on a useful practice for your garden, so this week I thought I’d give you a little how-to demonstration on something called approach grafting.  Approach grafting is a technique that you could use to graft a tomato to a tomato (good if you want to use a disease resistant root with a non-disease resistant top — common in heirloom tomatoes), a tomato stem to a potato root (just a fun project), or an eggplant root to a tomato shoot (good for wet locations).

So here we go.  First, you need two plants that are about the same size, and you need to plant them in the same container as demonstrated below with a potato and tomato.  You will also need to strip off lower leaves as they may get in the way of the graft.


Above we have a young potato and tomato plant to be grafted.


In the above picture the potato and tomato plant have been planted in the same container and their lower leaves have been stripped off.

After the two plants are in the same container a small slice is made on each plant at the same height.  This slice will be, ideally, just a little bit deeper than the cambium into the center of the stem (you’ll be able to see the plants pith — in the center of the cut — it’s tough to see in the image here).


In the above picture the stem of both the tomato and potato are cut so that they can be joined together.

After making the required cuts on both plants the cuts are pushed together and wrapped.  We used parafilm to wrap this graft, but saranwrap, or even an elastic band would also work.


In the above picture the cuts are being joined.


Here the cuts are wrapped.

The next step is to wait until the graft “takes”.  This could take 3-5 weeks.  After a good strong union is formed the top of the potato and the bottom of the tomato plants are cut off.  Wait a few days to make sure everything’s working properly and plant the result in your garden.

Veggie garden safety

A few months ago I posted a caution about using old pressure-treated timbers for vegetable gardens (see my Sept. 23 posting).  I now routinely get questions about alternatives to these arsenic-laden materials, especially new treated lumber.  What’s in the new wood that makes it rot resistant, and is it dangerous?

Rather than arsenic, new pressure-treated lumber has copper as its active ingredient.  Though it also will leach out of the wood, there is not a human health hazard associated with its uptake by plants or animals.  You probably get more copper leaching into the water carried through your plumbing (assuming you have copper, and not lead, pipes).

What about plastic timbers?  Though I’ve not seen any literature about leachates from plastic lumber, I’ve seen some older plastic timbers that haven’t aged well – they can warp and twist.  I would avoid those made of rubber, because decomposing rubber produces leachates that are quite hazardous (see September 30 for a discussion on rubber mulches).

Of course, there are many other materials one could use to corral their veggies – concrete blocks, stone, natural wood, etc.  Do you have a favorite?  Post a comment to let us know!

Veggie gardening science – whaddya know?

I just had a long conversation with Michele Owens (of Garden Rant fame) about vegetable gardening.  This isn’t one of my strong areas, either professionally or personally (I do have containers of herbs, but that’s as far as it goes).  But what piqued my curiosity was her revelation that the vegetable gardening is just as full of myths and misinformation as my field of ornamental landscaping.

I’ve ventured into the realm of vegetable garden science now and then, especially in reference to having soil tests done before planting edibles (good!), the use of CCA-treated timbers (bad!), and companion planting (silly!).  Beyond that I haven’t given the topic much thought.

          

(You know who loves you know who!)

So, readers, what gardening practices out there need to be screened through the sieve of science?  Jeff and I have both written about many practices and products, but as you know our expertise is more on the ornamental side.

(Forgive my short blog today.  I’ve had some kind of chest crud since last Friday and I’m still wiped out.)

Eat your veggies! (But not the arsenic, or the chromium, or the lead…)

vegetables_jpg.jpgThe last few years have been a perfect storm for the resurgence of home vegetable (and fruit) gardens.  Grapevines are trellised along sidewalks, herbs replace the grass in parking strips, and tiny gardens of carrots and lettuce are shoehorned into any available spot.  It’s all good  – but we need to be particularly careful about what those plant roots might be taking up along with nutrients and water.

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1)  Contaminated soil.  Many urban (and suburban, and even rural) soils are contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, and/or industrial wastes.  Lead is commonly found in soils near roads (from the old leaded gasoline we used to use) or from old lead-based paint chipping away from houses.   Arsenic is a very real problem in North Tacoma soils, for instance, thanks to the smelter that operated there for decades.   Overuse and incorrect use of home pesticides will leave residues in the soil for years.

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2)  Contaminated compost and soil mixes.  Many of the same contaminants mentioned above can be found in unregulated composts and soil mixes.  (More on this topic here.)

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3)  Treated lumber.  The old treated lumber (CCA = copper, chromium and arsenic) is no longer being sold, but it’s out there.  These timbers should not be used around vegetable gardens, as they will leach their heavy metals into the soil.  Vegetables vary in their ability to take up and store these metals.  (More on this topic here.)  Likewise, rubber mulches may leach unwanted chemicals into the soil and should not be used around food plants.  (More on this topic here.)

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What can you do to avoid these problems?  A few things are quick, easy and cheap:

1)  Have your soils tested.  I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blog on urban soils.  It’s the best way to find out exactly what you have in your gardens – the good and the bad.

2)  Use only certified composts and soil mixes.

3)  Plant in containers if your soils aren’t safe for food.  This is especially easy to do with perennial herbs, which can be kept like any other container plant on your deck or porch for years.

4)  You can also replace the soil in your vegetable garden.  This isn’t quick, easy, or cheap, but is a solution for some people.