Hybrid vigor in pepper seedlings

Early Scarlet, radish, sprout

Hybrid vigor, or heterosis, is a poorly understood process from a genetic standpoint, but it’s one that plant breeders exploit quite successfully.  Simply put, they cross two varieties of a plant, then grow out the children called the F1 generation.  If the cross is successful, it produces a hybrid plant which has superior characteristics to both of its parents, and often has stronger vigor — growing larger and faster than either parent.  If you’ve ever had a mystery squash take over your compost pile and look like Audrey II, that was hybridization at work.

Hybrids are developed to have better yield, flavor, resistance to a particular pest or disease, and/or better performance in a certain climate.  In many ways, this is similar to the reasons heirloom varieties are developed.  Grandma’s special zucchini from years of saving seeds is a variety which performs uniquely well in her garden, but may do poorly in yours 100 miles away.  (Or not.)  Regional favorites, like banana peppers here in the South, do so well throughout the region that they become hugely popular and are often sold as commercial transplants.  Most people don’t think of these as heirlooms, but they still are.  And all heirlooms or newer open pollinated varieties start out as a hybrid cross.

Hybrids or “F1” cultivars are common in catalogs.  These are not “genetically modified” any more than a mixed breed dog is, they are just crosses that are commercially produced in order to sell the children for seed.  While you can’t save the next F2 generation for seed and expect them to reproduce true, sometimes hybrids are just the ticket for a vegetable that doesn’t want to do well for you.

I grow sweet peppers, bell or lamuyo, from hybrid.  The open pollinated varieties simply don’t do well for me.  However, hot peppers do.  This year my pepper crop includes the African-American heirloom Fish Pepper with it’s lovely foliage and mildly hot taste, and experimenting with the new Islander F1 bell which is purple in it’s “green” stage.

Here’s the comparison of seedlings at the same age of development and grown under the same conditions:

Fish Pepper seedling

Fish Pepper seedling

Islander F1 seedling

Islander F1 seedling

The Fish Pepper will grow up just fine, but the hybrid is nearly ready for planting. Unfortunately, the weather is not, so the hybrids will just have to wait a bit longer.

Setting Realistic Goals for Your Garden

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Where are you going?

I’m a big believer in goals.  If you don’t know where you want to go, you probably won’t get there.  While unstructured exploration can be educational, if you want to begin or increase the amount of food you grow, you need to set some goalposts: ones you can realistically reach but still challenge you.

Let’s get one unrealistic goal out of the way: you are almost certainly not going to grow ALL your own food.  It is often said that our grandmothers and great grandmothers did it, but that’s untrue.  White flour or corn meal and sugar purchased at the general store formed a major part of most rural diets, from biscuits to cornbread to jelly.  Some households managed to grow, hunt and forage enough calories, which they could then barter for other supplies, but these households generally had at least one knowledgeable adult working full time at that job, a large tract of land plus available common space, often 2 or 3 adults and a selection of children plus a community to help with the big projects.  The earliest western frontier households?  Many of them died, and few were truly isolated.  Bartering money earned at other tasks for food is not a failure.  Someone with a full time job and a moderate sized backyard is just not going to be able to imitate a mature homestead with multiple generations of improvements and knowledge.

The specific goals you set will depend on your current situation, but good goals are always measurable.  A novice gardener might choose “I will only eat zucchini I grow myself from May to August 2014,” and then work very hard at zucchini.  Given the way it grows for most people, you are at greater risk of becoming sick of it, but the mere act of reaching goals is encouraging.  A veteran gardener and canner might choose, “I will only eat the tomatoes I grow and preserve this year,” and then count up the number of tomato paste and related products that come home from the grocery store and try to figure out how many tomato plants they are going to need.

I would encourage anyone, except possibly the newest of beginners, to set multiple goals.  Write them down.  Put them somewhere you will see them at least once a day — perhaps on the fridge door or on your computer screen or smartphone.  This will keep you focused on what you are trying to achieve and the progress (or lack thereof) you have made.  Reaching goals is confidence boosting, but failing is also educational and should be viewed as such.  Figure out why you failed and how to work around that issue next season.

By challenging yourself to get specific results, you’ll improve your ability to plan and execute your food growing desires.

(By Nicole Castle)

Stealth gardening: When obvious is not an option

Front landscaping

Can you count the edibles?

In the past year or two there has been a lot of media, web and blogosphere attention generated about homeowners and their front yard gardens, and the neighbors and cities unhappy about them.  While there’s nothing inherently unattractive about edibles or gardening, some of these gardens have certainly been undesirable from a modern urban/suburban aesthetic.  Property rights issues aside, I don’t share that aesthetic and you may not either, but whether you just want to keep the neighbors happy or you have to deal with local ordinances or homeowner’s association restrictions, there are ways to use your front yard for edibles without raising the ire of others.

Front yards are great places for fruit and nut trees.  They don’t need to be planted in a row or a grid just because it’s an orchard.  You can also take cues from the permaculture movement and build layered beds of edibles, which is more natural appearing.  While this makes maintenance more difficult for fruits that need it, it does reduce the need to keep the windfalls picked up in order to maintain a manicured appearance.  Another option for “tall” shapes is building a nice trellis or arbor for vines like grapes, squash or gourds.

Numerous edible shrubs can do double-duty as foundation plantings.  A few examples are roses, rosemary, blueberries, tea camellia and hazelnuts.  Rosemary can be pruned into a formal hedge.  Some herbaceous plants like cardoon and artichoke can be shrub sized.  Jerusalem artichoke is a tall sunflower with good tasting tubers.  And then, of course, there are regular sunflowers big or small.

Culinary herbs are other plants which straddle the arbitrary line between “edible” and “ornamental.”  Your local nursery probably has dozens of “flowers” that are edible or medicinal herbs that have been selected for brighter colored blooms.  They tend to be not as strong as their wild cousins, but provided you have the same species (beware mislabeling), they still share the same flavors.  Yarrow, borage, chives, sage, chamomile and lavender are a few in this category.

“Ornamental” vegetables are often just regular vegetables which have been bred for other characteristics.  Ornamental kale is still kale, and many of the varieties not sold as ornamental are still quite attractive.  Same for many other greens such as swiss chard and beets.  The bright leaves of rhubarb, the red blooms of scarlet runner bean and the bold foliage of hibicus plants (including okra) can used as ornamentals.  Ornamental sweet potatoes don’t make good roots, but the appearance above ground is the same — a rambling ground-hugging vine.  The non-ornamental versions just don’t have lime green or purple leaves.

Be more careful with ornamental peppers — not all are Capsicum annum and the ones that are tend to be brutally hot.  I would buy seeds from a reputable seed company to ensure safe edibility.

Underneath it all are groundcovers.  Think wintergreen, strawberries, thyme, purslane, and prostrate rosemary.  The more groundcover you have, the less mulch you need to keep fresh.

In a nutshell: if you need to garden stealthily, avoid rectangular garden shapes, straight rows and uniform blocks of plants.  Instead, think in terms of landscape design, where you choose the shapes and sizes you need, and then pick the appropriate plants.  Plant things like greens closer together for a more lush and full appearance.  This will reduce individual plant productivity and deplete your soil faster, but if the alternative is not using the space at all, you still come out ahead.

Finally, don’t be afraid to mix in plants that are purely ornamental or are not edible to us but feed beneficial insects and birds.  If you attempt to build your edible landscaping with 100% edibles, you will probably drive yourself nuts trying to find solutions to every space.  Yesteryear’s kitchen garden contained a mix of pretty and useful, and yours can, too.

There’s no reason your front yard “garden” needs to be unattractive — or even recognizable — to even those people who have a firm modern landscape/lawn aesthetic.  Plan carefully, and you can have a stealth garden in plain view.

(By Nicole Castle)

My favorite winter veggie: cabbage

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Cabbage gets no respect.  Kale is trendy and collards are so very Southern, but their cousin the cabbage is overlooked often in this country, except for the occasional uneaten side of coleslaw.  In 2011 the United States produced 959,750 metric tons of cabbage and brassicas (which would include kale, collards, broccoli and cauliflower).  China?  31,750,000 tons, much of which is what we call Chinese cabbage or Bok Choy.  Cabbage is much more popular in other countries than it is here, partly because cabbage yields more edible product than any other vegetable per acre and matures in as little as 3 months.

That’s not why I like it, though.  It is originally an Asian vegetable that made it’s way to the United States via northern Europe, and that means it’s a cold weather vegetable in subtropical climates like the South — perfect for winter growing.  It’s not quite as cold hardy as collards or kale, but only by a whisker.  Unlike collards and kale, however, cabbage stores exceptionally well for a green vegetable.  With the proper selection of storage varieties (heading types with low moisture content), cabbage will store up to 6 months at 32F and 90% humidity.  A home refrigerator is ideally set at 37F and is less humid, but still cabbage will store for a couple of months under those conditions.  Which means I can leave cabbage in the garden and harvest when I want it, add some protection if the temperature will drop below 22F or so, and if truly cold weather threatens I can bring it indoors into the fridge and store until spring greens are ready.

And as far as I am concerned, cabbage tastes better and is more flexible when preparing meals, from raw to sauerkraut to roasted.  Kale lovers will no doubt disagree.

Left unchecked, cabbage worms will shred your young cabbage in the fall.  They can be controlled with Bt without causing collateral damage to beneficial insects.  I use Dipel DF, which keeps well for many years if kept dry and unmixed, and I add a surfactant so the spray doesn’t just run off cabbage’s waxy leaves.  Reapply after every rain or about every 1-2 weeks to protect new growth.  You can also try hand picking, but I find the worms get down into the crevices and are very difficult to find.

Store-bought cabbage is cheap, this week at $0.52/pound conventional and $1.29/pound for organic, so your financial payoff with cabbage will not be a large one. Those in colder regions that must compete for space in the summer garden will probably not find it worthwhile.  However, with the ease of growing and with the available space in the winter season, cabbage probably deserves a place in the winter gardens for those of us in warmer climates.  Hardy crops like cabbage allow us to have fresh vegetables when much of the country must rely on what they’ve preserved.

(By Nicole Castle)

The favorite nut of the South: the pecan

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Sweet and rich pecans

Pecans are a true southern nut.  Native to the southeast region of North American and some locations in Mexico, this hickory relative was valued by the Native American tribes for its taste and high protein, fat and caloric content, as well as its ability to store in the shell for up to a year.  Colonial Americans considered them a delicacy and they were cultivated and exported to northern areas.  These are all reasons we still prize them today, although we also know now they are good sources of monounsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals.

Like most trees we cultivate for food, the seedlings grown from nuts do not necessarily resemble their parents, so the quality and characteristics of nuts from one tree to another varies widely.  In the case of pecans, so does the effort required to shell them.  The modern widespread agriculture of pecans began when an African-American slave named Antoine successfully grafted 16 trees that produced nuts that were easier to crack onto seedling stock in 1846 or 1847 in Louisiana.  While grafting was a known science, no one had yet succeeded with pecans, and succeed he did: eventually 126 trees were grafted, producing genetic clones of the single superior tree.  A later owner of the plantation commercialized the variety, “Centennial” paper shell pecans, in 1876.  Some of the trees that were sold are still living although none of Antoine’s original trees are.  Nor do we know what happened to the highly skilled slave gardener, who kicked off the widespread cultivation of the most valuable nut in the United States today, other than that we know he was alive in 1848 when he was valued at $1000 and his pecan skills noted.

Pecans are large deciduous trees which live very long lifespans: typically 300 years but potentially as many as 1000.  This means a pecan planted today is unlikely to yield any nuts at all for 10 years and won’t reach its peak nut production for many more after that.  This doesn’t mean I don’t recommend planting them if you have the space and proper environment: I do.  But you’ll probably be truly planting them for the next generation to enjoy.  This decade, you’ll need to get your pecans elsewhere.

We’ve been spoiled by the full nut meats, sweet taste and thinner shells of modern cultivated varieties, so while wild pecans are perfectly edible, your best bet foraging is not out in the wild, but gleaning in your own neighborhood.  (Assuming, of course, you live in the sultry South.)  The original planters of the trees are often long gone, so if you see a good tree dropping nuts on the sidewalk or someone’s lawn, it might be fair game.  But don’t steal — taking food off of someone’s property is in my opinion the worst form of stealing.  Knock on the door and ask: responses will vary from delight someone wants to pick up the annoying, lawn-killing lawnmower projectile nuts to outright refusal.  Someone who wants the nuts themselves might be willing to cut a deal where you pick up the nuts in exchange for keeping some.

Trees on public land are more complicated.  Check your local regulations, and also check with the local gleaning groups to be sure those trees aren’t already being collected for charitable causes.

Despite the caveats, pecan trees are everywhere once you start to recognize them, and it only takes one good tree to produce as many pecans as a typical household can handle.  Once you have “your” tree, you can go back to it each year… being sure to check with the owners again, of course.

For more on the history of the pecan, I recommend “The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut” by James Williams.

(By Nicole Castle)

By the numbers: the humble peanut

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Virginia peanuts

I didn’t mean to grow peanuts this year.  I didn’t need to conduct an experiment and weigh them to know that peanuts are not cost effective in backyard gardens.  And yet, last fall, at a community seed swap, there they were.  I brought home a scant handful; perhaps a 12 peanuts, give or take.  Few seeds go unplanted in Finch Hollow for long.

Peanuts are not a nut; they are a legume native to South America and first domesticated in the distant past, but they have spread all over the world.  They are exceptionally healthy, very calorically dense, and transport and save well.  Here in the US most of us eat peanuts roasted as a snack or as peanut butter, or eat things fried in peanut oil, but you can find other snacks, soups, sauces and sweets in many cuisines.  In the South they are popular boiled green in the shell with various spices, which is probably yet another culinary brainchild of African slaves.  You’ll see roadside BOILED P’NUT vendors from midsummer to fall.  If you haven’t tried them this way, next time you see one stop by and spend $1 for a cup.  You’ll be glad you did.  It’s messy, but delicious.

Quick note: “raw” peanuts are not “green” peanuts.  “Raw” peanuts are dried, but not roasted or cooked.  Green peanuts are freshly harvested and undried.  You can boil or cook with either raw or green peanuts, but the moisture content is very different, which can affect your recipe’s outcome.  And green peanuts do not keep long.  Green peanuts taste like beans (which they are), not like nuts (which is what most people think they are).

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Peanuts are an odd plant.  The seed (that’s the shell and all) goes in the ground, it spouts and then blooms with small yellow flowers.  When the blooms are fertilized, the plant sends down sprouts (or “pegs”) which drill into the soil and the plant fruits underground.  As a survival strategy, I suppose it helps protect the next generation from hungry critters, and the plant migrates it’s colony slowly outward that way.  However, as you can see in the photo above, the plant spreads itself out generously and using raised beds is not advised: those pegs never found dirt and so never turned into peanuts.

I gave the peanuts two 1′ x 8′ strips next to the corn.  They took over the rest of the two 4’x8′ beds and tried to spread into the aisles.  My dozen peanut shells turned into 4 1/2 pounds of peanuts in the shell.  While that is an excellent reproductive rate, it’s not very many peanuts when all is said and done.  I can buy roasted, salted peanuts in the shell for about $1 a pound here.  While the peanuts didn’t cost me anything to grow, they also didn’t pay back financial dividends and took up space that could be used more productively.

  • Cost of seed, labor, fertilizer, etc: none
  • Labor: none, other than harvesting
  • Space: 16 sq ft to 48 sq ft
  • Yield: 4.5 lbs
  • Cost at retail: $4.50
  • Value per square foot: $0.09-0.28

However, there are reasons you might want to grow peanuts anyway.  Peanuts are legumes, so they are nitrogen fixers and don’t deplete the soil, and can make an excellent cover crop if you have enough growing space to let beds rest.  If you have a lot of space, they pack a nutritional wallop for almost no effort until it’s time to dig them up.  (Loose soil is advised.  For you, not the peanuts.)  And if you want green peanuts for traditional dishes, green peanuts can be very difficult to find outside of farm market stands in the South for a limited time in the late summer and fall.

Should you grow peanuts?  Probably not.  Modern agriculture brings us this tasty and nutritious vegetable for far cheaper than you can grow it yourself.  But in terms of fascination with the plant itself, I can understand why George Washington Carver devoted so much time and brilliance to the humble and unassuming Arachis hypogaea.

(By Nicole Castle)

That other orange seasonal crop: persimmons

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So while everyone is focused on that big orange squash, let’s not forget this is the season for another orange fruit, the often overlooked Asian persimmon, Diospyros kaki.  Its sweet, creamy flavor and texture is a surprise every time you taste that first one of the season.  And unlike their American cousins, Diospyros virginiana, they make a small and elegant tree that is trouble-free in most areas — provided you are in Zone 7 or above.  Asian persimmons are also available in non-astringent varieties, so there are no worries about being sure they get really ripe before you taste one.  Most Asian persimmons sold in the US are grafted onto D. virginiana rootstock for additional hardiness and toughness in our soils.

My persimmon tree is of the Fuyu variety, which is probably the most common.  The tree is only 3 years old this fall, but last year I got about a dozen small fruits and this year the fruits are fewer, but are full sized.  As fruit trees go, that’s quite precocious and is almost on par with berries like blueberries.  The USDA says that retail persimmon prices this week are $1.36-$2.50 each, but I’ve never seen prices so low here, even on the rare occasions when I see them for sale.  By the USDA measure, however, my tree has not yet paid for itself but it is getting close.  The productive lifespan of the tree can easily exceed 30 years, so there’s time yet.

When it comes to short term preservation, the tree does it for you.  Fruits will hang on the tree for up to 2 months to be picked and eaten on demand.  After that, they don’t last long in the fridge; only about a week.  You can make jellies, jams and chutneys from persimmons, and they can also be pureed and frozen or dehydrated.  Maybe next year or the year after I will have an excess of these lovely fruit and will try some of those recipes out.

If you are looking for a fruit tree that is well-adapted to backyard fruit culture, grab a bright orange persimmon at the market in the brief period they are available and take it for a taste drive.

(By Nicole Castle)