A Dangerous Game

Every once in awhile I become infatuated with some idea and can’t stop for looking for information on it.  It usually starts when I want to find a good quote for a particular article or column that I’m writing and then ends up swallowing two or three days.  Well, it happened to me again yesterday and spilled over into today.  I’m currently finishing up a project with an old friend of mine from college who happens to be a political science professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.  We’re looking at certain environmental issues and the stances taken on them by both the left and the right.  Anyway, I wanted to make a point about biotechnology — that point being that when we graft two plants together we often get different chemicals in the plant which we grafted onto the rootstock than we would get if the plant were growing on its own roots.  This is because many chemicals can be translocated from the roots to the leaves or even the fruit.  Anyway, I quickly found a number of nice scientific articles to back up my statement, but I also found some other fascinating information about, of all things, tomatoes.  There are many plants related to tomatoes that tomatoes can be grafted onto.  For example, every spring our plant propagation class grafts potato roots to a tomato top.  Tomatoes can also be grafted onto eggplant (which is actually very useful because eggplant roots are very resistant to flooding unlike tomato roots).

While the above examples are interesting, they’re also relatively common knowledge among horticulturists.  Here’s the part that’s not common knowledge (or perhaps I should say here’s the part that I didn’t know about — I’ve been known to be ignorant of things that other people consider common knowledge before).  Tomatoes can be grafted onto tobacco, and, if they are, they will have nicotine translocated to their fruit — not a lot mind you.  Most of the nicotine ends up in the leaves and stems of the tomato plant, but still, why couldn’t a nicotine-laden tomato be developed which could help smokers kick the habit — in a semi-healthy kind of way?

I also found that tomatoes could be grafted onto jimson weed.  Big mistake there.  Jimson weed develops some pretty nasty alkaloids, and they end up in the tomato fruit.  So, if you eat the fruit, your done for.  In fact, I found an instance where 5 people were killed because they ate tomatoes grafted onto jimson roots.  I am now curious about what happens if you graft tomato onto deadly nightshade — but not curious enough to actually try it.

Organic or local?

I grew up on a small farm (30 or so acres) near Tacoma, Washington. We raised our own Herefords, I gathered eggs from my frizzle chickens, and we all enjoyed apples, plums and cherries from our fruit trees.  Neither of my parents were farmers by profession, though my grandfather owned a dairy farm in Oregon.  Eventually, my husband and I hope to move back to the family farm, if for no other reason than preserve it from the surrounding encroachment of houses.

I’ve been thinking about things I might do for fun or profit on the farm.  Home grown beef for sure.  A veggie garden – finally – on some of the only native soil left in the area.  We’ve got lots of options and the space to try them out.

Now back to the question in the title: organic or local?  Our family property has been managed gently since we moved there in the late 1960’s.  Nothing’s been added to the pasture soil other than what the animals deposited themselves.  We’ve had the apple trees sprayed yearly (a requirement because of apple maggot), but this is a targeted application with little affect outside the trees.  The cattle were never treated with hormones or other additives – they were about as free range as you can get.

I’ve heard from others that organic certification standards have become increasingly difficult to meet and some growers think they have become increasingly meaningless.  On the other hand, locally-grown products are becoming more available.

Is it time for a new standard – locally grown, with some requirements (e.g. soil tests) to demonstrate safety?

You say tomato, I say phytochrome

Yesterday I got an interesting email about a new product – a Tomato Automator.  Briefly, this square, red plastic disk slips around the stem of a tomato plant to suppress weeds and pests.  Most intriguingly, we’re told that the color “triggers a natural plant protein that makes tomatoes mature faster and product more fruit.”

Given this is a red product, it’s likely that the protein referred to is phytochrome (literally, “plant pigment”).  Phytochrome activity is maddeningly complicated to explain, so we’re going to keep this simple and refer (somewhat inaccurately) to “active” and “inactive” forms of phytochrome.  The active form of phytochrome exists when red light is predominant and encourages leaf expansion, chlorophyll development, and other characteristic of plants growing in full sun.  In contrast, the inactive form of phytochrome occurs when red light is reduced, either at night (when there’s no light) or in shaded conditions, where far-red light is predominant.  (Far-red light occurs just outside our range of visual perception but is absorbed by phytochrome.)

From a practical standpoint, this means a plant can “tell” whether or not its light environment is limited: both red and blue light are absorbed by chlorophyll, so a low level of red light means poor photosynthetic conditions.  Under such conditions, “inactive” phytochrome causes many plants to become etiolated (have abnormally long stems) in an attempt to outgrow the shade before it starves from lack of carbohydrate production.  In addition, this photosynthetically-poor light environment can also increase fruit set by redirecting resources to seed production rather than foliage  – perhaps a plant’s last effort to reproduce before it dies.

OK, now onto the useful application of this information.  Several years ago researchers investigated that effect of different colored plastic mulches on tomato production.  Again, to keep this simple we’ll just focus on the effect of red mulches.  It’s pretty much agreed that red plastic mulch reflects both red and far-red light, increasing not only red light but paradoxically the relative levels of far-red light.  Theoretically, this shift would cause tomatoes to put more resources into fruit production, and indeed some studies found this to be the case.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon is not consistent throughout repeated field studies.  Some of the other confounding factors are soil temperature (warmer temperature = more growth), insect and disease pressure (both decrease tomato production and are variably influenced by mulch color), and the fact that ethylene production (the plant growth regulator responsible for fruit ripening) is not controlled by phytochrome at all.

So are Tomato Automators worth the trouble?  Probably not, especially if you have many plants requiring many automators.

My Favorite Drug

I love coffee, but I’m not a big coffee drinker.  On average I probably consume a cup of coffee every week or two.  Why don’t I drink it more often?  For a few reasons: First, I’m too jumpy/jittery/nervous to begin with and I don’t need this stuff making it worse, second, it tends to upset my stomach if I haven’t had a meal beforehand, and third, while I like regular coffee, the stuff that I really love are those insane fru-fru coffee drinks that you can only get at specialty shops for five or six bucks — which seems like a waste of money to me.  As you may have guessed, at this very moment, I have an overwhelming urge for a vanilla latte and so, in lieu of that, I have decided to submit this post.

Anyway, as most of you know, coffee is a horticultural crop, and so are most of the other sources from which most of us obtain our (legal) chemical stimulants like chocolate and tea.  What most people don’t realize is that the stimulants in chocolate and tea are actually somewhat different than caffeine.  Chocolate does contain some caffeine, but its major stimulant is the closely related theobromine (which doesn’t actually have any bromine in it…).  Tea (which also has very low amounts of caffeine), on the other hand contains the stimulant theophylline which is, again, closely related to, but not the same as, caffeine.

What blows me away about caffeine is how toxic it is.  If caffeine were a pesticide it would need to be labeled as category 2 (there are 4 classes with 1 being the most toxic).  Its LD50 (in other words, the amount of this chemical that, if fed to a person, would have a 50% chance of killing him/her) is estimated at about 75 milligrams per pound that a person weighs.  According to Starbucks website, one of their tall vanilla lattes contains about that much caffeine, and so you could assume that a 150 pound person could kill themselves by drinking about 150 lattes (or 150 of the smaller cups of espresso from which the coffee is made).  Additionally, though findings are inconsistent, caffeine has been linked to certain cancers.  The current thinking is that it may affect hormone levels in the body which, in turn, influence hormone related cancers like breast cancer, etc.  This research is far from conclusive, but it is concerning.

OK, so here’s the thing that’s interesting to me.  There is a small but real contingent of people out there who want to ban the herbicide 2,4 D (I picked 2,4 D randomly – I could have picked Round-up,  Sevin, or any other pesticide – but I was thinking of summer, and so 2,4 D, the most commonly used turf herbicide, is what I chose).  I’m no fan of 2,4 D and would love to see it used less frequently than it currently is, but it is a useful herbicide, particularly in the production of grassy crops (like corn).  In lawns its overuse borders on the insane.

Opponents of 2,4 D would like to see it gone, in large part, because of its toxicity and potential to cause cancer.  And, indeed, there are some studies that show that 2,4 D has the potential to cause cancer, though these findings are inconsistent and ultimately inconclusive.  Additionally, in terms of 2,4 D’s LD50, it’s about 170 milligrams per pound that a person weighs – over two times LESS toxic than caffeine.  I’m not going to bother figuring out how much 2,4 D would be in an average glass of 2,4 D because, well, I’ve never been served a cup of 2,4 D before and hopefully I never will.  (If you’re curious as to how much 2,4 D would be in a cup of spray if you scooped it right out of the spray tank — then about 50 mg is a good estimate though it could be higher or lower depending on a lot of factors).

Anyway, this leads me to a ton of further questions, the most important of which is, without doubt, do anti-pesticide activists who fear the health dangers posed by 2,4 D drink coffee?

For those of you interested in these types of questions I encourage you to look over this article: http://www.marshall.org/article.php?id=73  It is posted on the website of a conservative group (which will probably alienate some of you and make others happy) – but it was originally published a number of years ago in a well respected journal and is one of my favorite articles ever in terms of getting the old brain thinking (Please don’t get the idea that I agree with everything in the article – I do not).  Bruce Ames, one of the authors, is what we call in academia a “heavy hitter” and so, even if you don’t agree with what he says, his words are well worth reading.


I’m not from the South, and so I can’t call myself a Southerner like Holly can, but I did spend 6 years in Georgia.  There are lots of things about it which I miss: winters which are more like a Minnesota fall, the almost disgustingly friendly people (OK, there was that one time that I was chased by a guy with an SKS assault rifle — but that was an exception — generally Southerners are the nicest people you could ever want to meet), and, especially, the food.  I love okra, I love grits, I love country fried steak, I love mustard greens, collard greens, fried catfish, sweet tea (which is starting to become popular here) etc. And for those of you thinking well shoot, you can get that at your nearest Cracker Barrel (which I frequent) — IT JUST ISN’T THE SAME.  One of the foods which I miss the most though — one that hasn’t found its way to Minnesota yet — is the boiled peanut.  For those of you who don’t know what a boiled peanut is, it’s a little piece of heaven that has been boiled in a tub of hot salt water for a long time so that, when you break open the peanut’s shell, now the texture of watery cardboard, the seeds inside are soft, warm and, you guessed it, salty.  So, why am I telling you this?  Because I can’t suppress my excitement any longer.  Tom Michaels. a good friend of mine who is a transplant from a Canadian University where he worked on bean breeding, and I recently were talking about boiled peanuts and he told me that he has a peanut variety which will grow here in Minnesota without too much trouble and which is can be used to make hot boiled peanuts.  So I’m in the process of finding excuses to plant this critter — I’m going to plant it between rows of trees, in grass plots, in vegetable gardens — and then I’m gonna harvest them all and make hot boiled peanuts through the entire winter next year!

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.


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.


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.)


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.)

   garden_jpg.jpg    treated%20lumber_jpg.jpg

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.