Last June Fresh Air aired an interview with Barry Estabrook based on Barry Estabrook‘s book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. I meant to write a post about it back then, but laziness got the best of me. Don’t judge.
I have not read the book, but the interview with Estabrook was endlessly fascinating. I guess anyone who has made the mistake of purchasing a tomato in the winter from a big box grocery store knows how actual garden tomatoes don’t even compare, but it sounds like his book tells us why this is the case. Much of the reason is through breeding and development that favors ship-ability, volume, and attractiveness of the fruit rather than nutrition and taste, and another reason is inhospitable climates that the tomatoes are grown in. He also delves into the horrendous labor practices in the tomato industry, and how some growers have been successfully prosecuted for having slaves. I learned a bunch of other stuff, too, but I’m trying to keep this post to a palatable length.
I had always assumed that tomatoes are grown in Florida because the climate is perfect for them, but apparently this is not the case. The humidity is actually really bad for the tomato plants, and so the farmers are resigned to constantly spraying their crops so as to prevent mildew and disease problems that would naturally arise. Estabrook has identified 100 different herbicides and pesticides that are recommended for farmers in Florida to use on one crop of tomatoes.
Thinking back to my own experience with tomatoes, it makes sense that Florida is not ideal. Our summers here are much shorter than Florida, but it still gets very humid. By the end of the 2010 summer year all my tomato plants were a pretty sad sight from the powdery mildew that I was unable to control. Last year it was less of a problem because I did a few things differently:
1. watered early in the day.
2. avoided water on the leaves of the plants while watering.
3. spaced the plants properly.
4. Got lucky.
Flowering as if it were warm and sunny
Saint Paul’s average soil temperature last week was a 62 degrees. Last year at this time, Saint Paul’s soil temperature was also 62 degrees. In 2009 it was 72 degrees. In 2008 it was a mere 56 degrees. In 2007 it was 70 degrees. So we seem to be about right.
I think it’s really interesting to see what the farmer’s are doing, because obviously they know a lot more than me about planting. The USDA keeps tabs on national agriculture and has a page on Minnesota’s crop progress and conditions, that is updated weekly. Here is the report for Minnesota Crop Progress as of May 22. Notably, sweet corn, sunflowers, dry beans, and soybeans are just started to be planted, and potatoes, sugar beets, green peas are mostly planted. I’m relieved to find that I’m not so far behind…although I really need to get going on a potato tower.
If you happen to read the report, you’ll see that as much as I grumble and complain, our average temperatures are right on target with the norm, even though last year we were able to plant a lot more quickly.
I thought all was lost...
Two of my blueberry bushes rose from the dead!
Last year I planted three blueberry bushes. I read their tags, talked to the salespeople, did no research, and planted them. When the snow finally melted a few weeks ago, I was saddened to see that two of the little fellas did not make it. I found out that over the winter, as the ground is accumulating snow and vegetation slowly disappears, the damn rabbits will munch whatever they can get. What they munched was, to my dismay, my blueberry bushes.
I was thisclose to pulling the two bushes, thinking that they were gone, gone, gone…I even perused other blueberry bushes at gardening centers and plant sales. A little part of me needed to wait just a little bit longer to see what would happen. And I am SO happy that I did. They are “pruned” to the bone, no doubt, but they are definitely budding!
Fava Bean plant - taken from the Wikimedia Commons
Sierra Club Magazine had a fantastic article this month on some unique edibles to grow in your garden (click on the image of the edible to see the details). On the list was fava beans, figs, kumquats, small eggplants, and hardy kiwi. In zone 4, figs and kumquats will need a container and be transferred inside during the winter, but the fava beans, eggplants, and hardy kiwi are very doable.
I am a huge fan of edamame (young soybeans), and it sounds like fava beans are pretty similar when you harvest them young. Based on that above article, and some other reading I’ve done online, the plants are very productive, and have been cultivated for centuries. The plants are very cold-hardy, and as I perused some online seed catalogs I found that some varietals of fava bean are hardy down to 15°F! In fact, fava beans do better in cool conditions, and it may even get too hot for them here, too soon. Crazy, huh? It seems like the hardier varieties might be ideal to plant as early as March…and they might be a good plant very late in the season, like in September. NPR has an article describing the process to prepare fava beans for eating. After calling many of the local gardening stores, I finally bought some fava beans seeds at Bachman’s. Although there’s no sign of the plants above the ground, I took a peak at one of them yesterday and it is definitely germinating. Hooray! Does anyone out there have experience with fava beans?
I had never heard of hardy kiwi before this season, and I’ve noticed a few garden centers are carrying them this year. With a fenced-in backyard, vining plants are doable and so I might have to consider it (even though I have a slight allergy to tropical kiwi…my guests can have them if I can’t!). The Wikipedia article suggests that cats are known for destroying the plants, however, because they are super-attracted to the scent of it. We do have a few cats in the neighborhood, so that is something to seriously consider. The Friends School Plant Sale will be carrying hardy kiwi this year! Keep in mind you need both a male and female plant to get fruit, and UMN Extension wrote an article about growing hardy kiwi, and says it takes a couple years for them to start fruiting.
The Friends School Plant Sale also has a kumquat tree, fig tree and twelve kinds of eggplant.