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Rural Roots Blog
Exploring the world outside our windows through gardening, farming, cooking, decorating and more.

Tomatillos on a whim
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Tomatillos on a whim

October 12, 2017 | 02:08 PM

I picked it up on a whim at the greenhouse, stuck it in the garden and went about my business. A few weeks ago I finally decided to do a bit of research about the tomatillo plant that was getting gigantic and loaded with fruit.

Just about everyone says "what?" when I utter that word-tomatillo. "It's kind of like a green tomato but, in my opinion, better," is my reply.

Although the tomatillo is much different in taste and texture than a green tomato, the fruit can be used in many of the same ways as mature tomatoes. Different, but alike, this can be attributed to the fact that both, along with eggplants and peppers too, are members of the nightshade family, according to Iowa State University Extension.

The tomatillo plant is similar in structure to an eggplant or pepper but the fruit...it's very unique. The flowers turn into papery husks and the fruit forms inside of them. It's quite a pretty display and unique to the vegetable garden.

In my post-planting research, I learned that most experts recommend planting more than one plant for purposes of pollination. Maybe because my tomatillo was directly next to three tomato plants, that was sufficient? I'm not sure why, but my lone plant was very fruitful.

The deer seemed curious about this new plant and browsed the top leaves from time to time but the damage was minimal. The year's one and only tomato hornworm was gorging on the tomatillo in mid-summer but we quickly took care of him.

When I decided to trade my blissful ignorance for actual facts, I was a bit too late. The first fruits I harvested were cracked. It wasn't a huge deal but the blemishes make them spoil sooner.

Here's what I determined when it comes to maturity-pick the tomatillos when the husk just starts to turn a yellow or tan color. Those that are ready will easily release from the stem. Depending on the variety, the fruit might not actually fill the husk by the time it's ready and that's okay because quality trumps size. I lost my plant tag but I think mine was a 'Toma Verde.'

The tomatillo is native to Mexico and is used in a range of traditional Mexican dishes. I opted to go the traditional, familiar route and make salsa verde with my crop and, wow, I'm glad I did! The result is a tangy but refreshing salsa that goes well with just about everything. I've had it on chips, quesadillas, scrambled eggs and with chicken tenders. My husband slathered it on leftover turkey the other day and gave it rave reviews.

According to the Iowa State experts, fresh tomatillos in their husks can be stored in the refrigerator in a paper bag for up to two weeks. Remove the husks and they'll last for an impressive three months in the fridge. The fruit can be frozen or canned for future use.

Here's my version of Salsa Verde, inspired by several recipes, but tailored for our tastes:

•15 medium tomatillos, husks removed

•2 small jalapenos, stem removed

•Half of a white onion, cut into thin slices

•1 tsp. chopped garlic

•12 cilantro leaves

•Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and dry the tomatillos. Place them, the jalapenos and onions on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in a 425 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until the tomatillos have started to brown. Let roasted veggies cool slightly.

Add the jalapenos and half of the tomatillos and onions to a food processor along with the garlic and cilantro. Process until smooth.

Coarsely chop the remaining tomatillos and onions by hand and add to sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For a smoother salsa verde, process all ingredients in a food processor or blender.

So what's the moral of my story? Don't be afraid to try something new each season. At a mere $2 (or less, I don't recall the exact price), my tomatillo experiment was cheap, whether it lived or died.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Summer, fall or what?
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Summer, fall or what?

Gardeners, farmers might appreciate more heat


September 28, 2017 | 11:43 AM

Spring often gets a back rap for having such fickle weather but the summer transition into fall can be turbulent too if you use this year as an example. It's like September came into sight and August decided to check out early. As a kid I remember sweating my way through the first few weeks of school. This time around, my kindergartener and I had to do calisthenics in the morning to stay warm while waiting for the bus. Temperatures in the 90s this weekend....what happened?

A new record low of 36 degrees was set in Flint last Saturday the 9th, surpassing the 1995 record of 38 degrees as reported by the National Weather Service (NWS). According to Enviroweather, the thermometer dipped near 32.5 in Lapeer that same morning. Five new record high temperatures have been recorded by the NWS in Flint since last Thursday.

The mild temperatures were certainly comfortable but, for the sake of my garden and many farmers, I'm glad that the mercury has risen again. Still, overall in terms of growing degree days, we've seen less heat than last year. According to Enviroweather, both the Lapeer and Emmett weather stations are reporting degree day figures below the five-year average across the board. At a degree day base of 45 degrees, the Lapeer station is 216 units behind the five-year average. For specific crops, like alfalfa, the Emmett station is 85 heat units under the six-year average and 96 fewer for corn development as of Tuesday.

This heat has hopefully helped our late planted soybeans can fill out those pods.

Most things in my garden developed normally although my Cherokee Purple tomatoes took longer than usual to start ripening and my basil plant hasn't gotten very big.

I was grateful for the slow down in cucumber production when temperatures dropped. I've brought veggie and dip trays wherever I can, made a batch of refrigerator pickles and pawned off quite a few on co-workers (thanks Rita!). In recent years, my plants have succumbed to disease mid-season so I'm not used to this kind of bounty.

Some crops, like apples, are actually ahead of schedule when it comes to maturity. Michigan State University Extension educator Bob Tritten, who's based in Flint, said that this is due to an early and extended bloom period this spring in most of eastern Michigan. Many apple varieties have been ripening up to a week ahead of their normal harvest dates.

At this point, precipitation or the lack thereof, is the most pressing issue both gardeners and farmers are seeing. This growing season seemed to feature several extended periods of no rain that obviously stressed crops, landscapes and gardens.

The Lapeer weather station shows a 2.12 inch deficit compared to the five-year average as of Sunday. In Emmett, the difference was just a half inch.

Although the heat helped pump up production in my garden once again, the dry conditions have slowed it down once again.

Believe me, fall is one of my favorite seasons but I was grateful for one last bout of summer-like weather before the snow starts to fly.

Now, where's that rain?

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown

An ode to August

September 19, 2017 | 03:14 PM

I haven't always liked summer. For a time in my early teens, the hot sun and I didn't get along. I had a perpetual headache that started in June and lasted through August so I chose to stay in the shade or vegetate indoors with a book. It wasn't an awful existence but as someone not so fond of winter, I really wanted to soak up those warm rays when I had the chance.

Eventually, my eyes adjusted to the brightness and my head stopped throbbing due to the summer environment. Technically, I had a new headache trigger by then-college exams! Getting to like summer again as a newbie gardener was fun and now, experiencing the season with kids is an even greater thrill. And I've decided that August has to be best the summer month. Essentially, everything in my life aligns to this place where there's peace and satisfaction.

Work-wise, things are usually pretty quiet this time of year. The festivals and fairs are over and everyone's finding some last minute summer fun before the school bells ring. I get fewer phone calls and emails and that's okay. It gives me the chance to wander outside and write columns (like this one!).

Obviously, it's a great time in the veggie garden. Most plants are hitting their stride, a gardener can plan on incorporating the harvest into meals and we're not tired of zucchini...yet.

There's no excuse to not have a fresh vase of flowers on your table. Perennials, annuals and weeds—all are in full bloom right now. Just about anything and everything pairs well with some Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod and some sprigs of sage.

In general, I don't mind mowing the lawn but I'm rather grateful when the grass' enthusiasm wanes in this eighth month. It seems like the only "outside" time I get in May, June and July involves a mower or weed whip so I welcome the chance to spend a Saturday afternoon doing something else, even if it's also a futile exercise, like sweeping three inches of pine needles off the patio.

Early summer feels like a constant game of catch up in the yard too. Weeds are popping up everywhere, shrubs grow out of their bounds and require a trim, and it seems like every plant needs dividing. Now, plants and trees are settled and just being.

I love to see our field crops in full stride this time of year too. The field corn is reaching toward the sky and obscuring the landscape, in a mostly good way. It becomes this green screen that provides a temporary privacy fence of sorts along our yard. The soybeans are blousy and putting their energy into pod and bean production. The sugar beets are transitioning from pushing out leaves to storing the sweet stuff in their roots. By now, at least one crop is harvested-wheat-and the straw is baled. There's hay to cut but...there's always and forever hay.

It's all an indication that the fall harvest isn't far off but that's a September thing.

The thought of sipping a cup of coffee outdoors some morning feels like it could become reality. When that opportunity comes, I'll scan the backyard, start to make a mental list of what practical projects I should tackle post-Labor Day and then daydream about some not-as-practical ones. Wouldn't a water garden be nice?

The sun in its course seems a bit more hospitable right now. Sleep in on a Saturday morning in June and you're assaulted with brightness once the shade opens. Now my bleary eyes get a chance to adjust. It's certainly easier to corral children and point them towards the bathtub since the August sun starts to set at a reasonable hour.

Yes, more reasonable things will dominate life as the days march toward September but, for now, I'm savoring the easy breezy days of August. Popsicles for breakfast? Why not!

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Gardening for our winged friends
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Gardening for our winged friends

A tour of local butterfly gardens


August 15, 2017 | 11:12 AM

Butterfly gardens are pretty popular these days and for good reason. They're both pretty and have a good purpose. Recently, I had the chance to scope out three public gardens that cater to our winged friends, take lots of pictures and admire the work volunteers are doing to create beautiful and beneficial plantings.

In late July I strolled through the Butterfly Garden at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden Township. One week later, on a trip to Crossroads Village, I admired the plantings created there by the Master Gardener Association of Genesee County. Last week we checked out the new butterfly garden on Third Street in Imlay City.

I studied those pictures, did a bit of research and gleaned some ideas for making any landscape more attractive to butterflies. Creating a dedicated space is certainly fun but not necessary if you can incorporate these concepts into an existing garden or yard.

•Grow plants that complement a butterfly's lifecycle: Butterflies rely on plants for two main things—to obtain nectar as food and to lay their eggs. Fortunately, butterflies will utilize many plants for both activities, including milkweed.

According to Michigan State University Extension, there are ten milkweed species native to Michigan including butterfly milkweed and swamp milkweed. Milkweed is the only host plant monarchs will utilize. Similarly, other species like to stick with one family of plants. The Black Swallowtail favors anything in the carrot family including dill, parsley, fennel, carrot and wild carrot.

The list of nectar plants is a pretty long one-phlox, coneflower, beebalm, sunflower, zinnia, cosmos, verbena, yarrow.

North Carolina State Extension recommends that gardeners choose flower blooms of different sizes and depths that accommodate some of the smallest butterflies, like skippers, that have shorter proboscises (their straw-like 'tongue'). The Crossroad Village gardens have a plethora of blooms for the smaller types-open faced daisies, coneflowers and zinnias.

•Cover all three seasons: It's key to provide nectar sources for adult butterflies in all of spring, summer and fall.

Many spring flowering trees and shrubs will attract butterflies, like lilac and redbud.

It's quite easy to keep butterflies fed during the summer months, especially with summer annuals mentioned above.

Fall...well, that's another story.

Some researchers are beginning to think fall-blooming perennials that provide nectar are nearly as important as milkweed is to summer breeding areas. According to the University of Illinois Extension, plant ecologists say that although is there is less milkweed in crop fields, natural areas are "buffering that loss" and allowing monarchs to maintain their normal populations through the summer. Researchers with the Illinois Natural History Survey believe that overall monarch population declines may come from too few floral resources in the fall when the creatures head south to Mexico. For that reason, gardeners are being urged to plant fall-blooming perennials like Liatris, Joe Pye weed, bee balm, purple coneflower and downy sunflower.

The Crossroads gardens had impressive stands of Joe Pye weed, lots of coneflowers and Liatris.

•Mass flowers of similar color: This idea harkens to the Victorian practice in formal gardens where a perennial border was ordered by color. Today's garden design favors a more integrated look in terms of hue so gardeners may have to fight their urges and instead create big displays of single colors which butterflies are more likely to notice, according to Better Homes and Gardens.

Imlay City's Butterfly Garden had a nice grouping of black-eyed Susans which should grow and propagate easily, creating a mass of bright yellow nectar-rich flowers.

Choosing plants with clustered blooms, like phlox, is also recommended.

Another option to concentrate plantings by bloom time which gives the creatures easy access to nectar sources without increased exposure to predators. This advice from the NC State Extension.

•Don't plan to spend a fortune: So many of the plants butterflies favor are common and several freely multiply. Hit up a friend whose garden is overflowing with phlox, alyssum, hollyhock or bee balm.

It also helps that many of these common butterfly plants are exuberant growers. Take, for example, the butterfly bush. In Michigan, our cold winters make most plants die back to the ground nearly every year but many varieties quickly spring up and easily grow to five or more feet tall.

•Use hardscape: Both Seven Ponds and Imlay City's gardens included seating for observers to utilize but it turns out butterflies appreciate these structures too. Imlay City's chairs and table or Dryden's bench could serve as a sheltered place for caterpillars to pupate. This recommendation comes from the Student Conservation Association.

Back to the human aspect of including hardscape....having a spot to sit and observe winged visitors makes a lot of sense too. Taking the time to see just who is visiting the plants should be a goal of most gardeners. Sit and enjoy the beauty of your work in both the flora and fauna.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.
Notes from a wet garden
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Notes from a wet garden

August 15, 2017 | 11:05 AM

This is kind of a misleading headline. My garden and landscape aren't drowning in water. In our small corner of the world, we've been fortunate to get regular, manageable precipitation in recent weeks, avoiding some of the downpours others have seen. Now, after a few dry days, my car is caked in dust. At the same time, there's no denying we're above average for the amount of rain that's fallen so far this growing season. According to the Michigan State University Enviroweather station in Emmett (closest in proximity to me), an average of 9.88 inches typically falls between April 1 and July 28. So far this year, during that same time span, 12.44 has been recorded.

Here's how that reality is manifesting itself in my garden and landscape:

•My shrubs and perennials are super happy-growing and blooming with abandon. The yews that almost got destroyed by hungry deer in a past deep freeze have a good six inches of new growth on them. The Echinacea that's been so-so for several seasons stands tall and is covered in flowers. Those perennials that I transplanted weeks ago are well on their way to getting established in their new beds.

Then there are a few show offs, like the Korean lilac that decided to start blooming again! I notice the first flower while mowing and figured it was a fluke but since then, the shrub has put out another half-dozen blooms. I've seen this before (and documented it here) when a different bush in our yard put out two or three blooms in late fall when the mild weather mimicked spring-like conditions. I guess this one doesn't mind the heat of summer!

•Slugs...they are everywhere! I see them on fruit, veggies, flowers and in the grass. Whether or not you consider them a pest depends on the plants. I've pulled several off of raspberry leaves without noticeable damage. One was residing on a freshly picked cucumber and had taken a few bites but the damage was minimal and the slime washed off with water. They can take big bites out of tomatoes and will gorge themselves on hosta leaves so I'll be keeping a close eye on those plants.

•Downy mildew-so far, no sign of it yet, but MSU Extension is warning home gardeners to be on alert for cucurbit downy mildew on their cucumber, melon, pumpkin and squash (both summer and winter) plants.

So far, it's been positively identified in Monroe, Gratiot, Lenawee, Bay, Wayne and Saginaw counties in commercial operations. It's apparent when the top surface the of the leaves turn yellow and velvety or fuzzy dark spores are found on the underside of leaves.

Currently, MSU researchers are monitoring the situation with the help of spore traps and should the disease come close to Lapeer or St. Clair counties, you may want to preventatively treat your plants with a fungicide containing the active ingredient chlorothalonil.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Won't you grow some oregano?
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Won't you grow some oregano?

July 13, 2017 | 12:49 PM

If you don't have an oregano plant growing in your yard or garden, you're missing out. It seems like everyone goes ga-ga for basil in the summertime or thinks about the typical garnishes like parsley when it comes to herbs but oregano, in my opinion, is a versatile, unsung hero in the kitchen.

It's super easy to grow. The plant I have was started from seed some four years ago. Residing in a raised bed, it endures long periods without water and hasn't had much in the way of fertilizer or compost. This spring I rather clumsily tried to divide it but things didn't go well thanks to my dull shovel and the oregano's dense core. Despite that abuse, it's still going strong. Next time I'll take smaller divisions from the perimeter of the plant or just dig up the volunteers I notice.

Right now, it's blooming. The buds are a vibrant purple that open to reveal pretty white flowers attract lots of important pollinators.

Just before the bloom, I harvested young stems for drying. According to the experts at Bonnie Plants, that's the ideal time to do it.

I gathered the stems, tying them at one end and left them on the kitchen counter to dry. Once they're crispy to the touch, simply strip the leaves from the stem and pulse them in a food processor. I happily dumped out the gray, dull leaves in the dollar bottle that's called my spice cabinet home for a couple of years and replaced it with the new, fragrant leaves.

Of all the herbs I grow, I'm certain that oregano has the most uses across cuisines including Italian, Mexican and Greek. The smell of the fresh stuff reminds me of the homemade pizzas my mom made when I was a kid. I reach for the bottle when I'm making my own taco seasoning or a chicken fajita marinade. Most recently I chopped up oregano for a Greek salad vinaigrette. It paired well with tomatoes, cucumbers and beet tops that I thinned from the starts in our garden.

Here's the rough recipe I used:

1 tbl. olive oil

1 tbl. vegetable oil

2 tbl. lemon juice

2 tsp. chopped fresh oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the vinaigrette and refrigerate at least an hour. Combine chopped cucumber, tomato, beets (or beet tops), red onion and feta cheese. Dress with vinaigrette and stir well. Top with croutons if desired.

Some of my other favorites:

-Betty Crocker chicken fajita marinade (https://goo.gl/PwFR6N)

-Perry's Plate homemade taco seasoning (https://goo.gl/nKPrXb)

Email Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
In the spring birding spirit
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In the spring birding spirit

May 05, 2017 | 09:02 AM

So there's plenty of other things to see outside my window this time of year, like lovely daffodils, tulips and soon to be blooming lilacs, but I'm keeping an eye on my feathered friends too. They're still feasting on seed, gathering nesting materials and there are those travelers, stopping for a bit on their spring migration.

On a Monday morning last month, a flash of red caught my eye. A red-headed woodpecker visited our feeder, stopped at the suet and seemed quite entertained by the antics of our resident population. It hung around for a few hours. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says this bird is commonly referred to as a "flying checkerboard," and I can see why. It is very distinctly color blocked in red, white and black, unlike most birds that have some kind of striped or speckled feathers. They're considered partial migrants who head south in winter, but that distance depends solely on where food sources are. According to Cornell's map, they're considered year round residents of southern Michigan and choose the Thumb and northern regions for summer breeding.

The red-headed woodpecker will visit suet feeders in winter but they prefer to dine on insects, nuts and fruit. This might be why I've never seen this bird before, but its declining population could be a factor too. According to Cornell scientists, the red-headed woodpecker is considered "Near Threatened" since their numbers have dropped an estimated 70 percent since 1966. This is attributed to fewer nut trees and fewer dead trees in which to build nests.

Those birds that seem almost tame are a treat too. Chickadees are famous for that. They don't have any qualms about stopping at a feeder, bird bath or tree even when humans are nearby. A few white-breasted nuthatches are pretty friendly too...perching just above a feeder while I fill it. Last week, a sparrow happily searched for seed in the grass as I approached with my camera. Turns out it was a white-throated sparrow likely fueling up for the next leg of its journey to this species' summer breeding grounds in Canada.

It's rather striking in appearance with the somewhat drab body of most sparrows that contrasts with bright white and black stripes on its head along with vibrant yellow lores—that spot above their eyes.

Interestingly, these birds don't mind spending time on solid ground, the Cornell experts say. They are considered ground foragers and typically build nests on or near the ground. That may explain its tolerance of me.

Besides seed from feeders, white-throated sparrows like to dine on the buds, blossoms and seed of trees like oak, apple and maple. Once there's more vegetation, they choose grass and weed seed including ragweed and get a bit of protein from wasps, stinkbugs, spiders and snails.

Soon, some more flashy visitors should be appearing like Baltimore orioles (saw one Tuesday morning!) and hummingbirds and the view outside the window will stay interesting!

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Receiving the royal treatment?
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Receiving the royal treatment?

Processes protect, enhance seeds prior to planting


April 10, 2017 | 02:13 PM

I think my last two columns have established that a seed is not "just a seed." These little packages of potential are packed with fascinating histories, created with precise science and, unfortunately, ripe for misunderstanding and marketing mis-truths. We know what is and is not in them (no GMOs in the case of all garden seed) and where they came from (prized backyard heirlooms and vigorous plant lab hybrids) but there's one more label that's worth a deeper look...but we don't have to dig deep, it's on the surface—seed treatments.

Seed can receive any number of treatments from that time between harvest and storage. It's an important process for row crops and commercial vegetable farmers who make significant investments in seed and utilize machinery to plant that seed. It's not as common a practice for seed destined for the home garden. As a result, that 'untreated' label you might encounter is rather meaningless.

Although the term 'treated' might make one think first of chemicals, seeds can be treated with something as benign as hot water to protect it from pathogens or coated with plain old clay to make a pelleted seed that's larger in size and easier for handling and planting.

Some clarification on this matter might be most helpful when describing the differences among the two camps of treated and untreated seed—the 'haves' and the 'have nots.'

Untreated seed is just that-it hasn't received any kind of treatment, but it doesn't imply anything about the way it was cultivated. Raw seed can essentially claim the same definition. To bear an 'organic' label, that seed must have been grown under certified organic conditions and remain untreated after harvest. Certified organic growers are allowed to use untreated seed if a comparable variety is not available in an organic form.

Treated seed has been subjected to chemical or biological methods to defend against specific pathogens. Corn seed can be treated chemically to reduce damage from several pests that will attack it after planting. Some pumpkin, squash and melon seed receives a treatment that protects it against soil-borne diseases and can provide early season protection from beetles. Note that 'early season protection' description...that's true of virtually all seed treatments. They only provide a temporary benefit that quickly dissipates in the soil.

Pelleted seed is especially small seed that's been coated with an inert material, like clay, to make it larger and more uniform in size. Many online retailers offer pelleted carrot, lettuce and onion seed. If you grow large rows of any of these crops and want to spare yourself the time it takes to thin them, pelleted seed may be the answer.

Filmcoat processes can also be used on seed. Coating seed with a food-grade material can also contribute to better handling and, when a mechanical seeder is being used, better flowability. Better handling is also the goal when seed is detailed, that is, fibrous tails were removed either chemically or physically.

In seed treatment descriptions you'll see the term 'clean' in nearly all of them. Again, that doesn't imply anything has been unnaturally stripped from them, it just indicates that the seed is free from any plant material that is sometimes collected during harvest, like stems and pods.

Harris Seeds offers a basic but thorough list of seed treatments at www.harrisseeds.com/pages/faqs.

The goal of this three-part series about seeds, labels and marketing claims was to reassure gardeners and the general public that we have a safe food supply thanks to science. It's important for everyone to seek out facts about plant material and propagation and ignore the fear tactics many companies choose to use. Find some seed (regardless of what the labels say), plant it and enjoy whatever you're able to grow.

No luck in the garden? No worries. Thanks to the bountiful food supplies in this country, you won't go hungry. Just plan to make weekly visits to the farmers market!

Maria Brown
Hybrid vs. heirloom
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Hybrid vs. heirloom

March 21, 2017 | 02:27 PM

I don't know if the hybrid vs. heirloom debate should be classified in the same 'gimmick' category as non-GMO (genetically modified organism) garden seed but there is plenty of false information about superior seed and plant material and, unfortunately, it's the proprietors of these materials spreading half-truths.

There's a resurgence in the popularity of heirloom vegetable and flower varieties and for good reason. They offer unique tastes, colors, shapes and sizes, thanks to the practice of open pollination, in which members of the same species are crossed with the help of pollinators or wind. This helps contribute to genetic diversity in plant life. Undeniably, the heirloom craze started with tomatoes. Growers sought old varieties that were prized for their taste and distinct flavors. (I can attest to the wonderfulness of Cherokee Purple. It's my favorite tomato, hands down.) Because of heirloom's history, many have intriguing stories tied to their origins. Take for example 'Mortgage Lifter,' the tomato developed in the 1930s by a man who went by the nickname 'Radiator Charlie.' He allegedly crossed several heirlooms to create this pink-skinned fruit that went on to generate enough money through tomato and plant sales that he could actually payoff his mortgage. Those varieties considered 'family heirlooms' are seeds that have been passed down through several generations. Who wouldn't want to continue that unique tradition and grow the same kind of corn that grandpa did? Just for reference, a hybrid is created when breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two varieties with the intent of producing a new plant that exhibits desirable traits from each of its parents. Hybrid fruit and vegetables usually display more vigor, yield and disease resistance than heirlooms.

While those are all admirable attributes, marketers have seized on several gaps in the heirloom market for their benefit.

First of all, the definition of just what 'heirloom seed' is quite broad. In general, varieties must be at least 50 years or older or pre-World War II. Their origins can be of the 'family' type or they could have had their start in the commercial realm, either as a pre-1940 introduction or having been in circulation for more than 50 years. One seed company wants to capitalize on the 'oldness' of heirlooms, suggesting that they correlate with a time when pesticides and herbicides were not used. That claim is not true. Farmers and gardeners have used treatments on their crops for a long time, and as noted previously, some heirloom crops are more susceptible to diseases and pests, requiring more treatment. Additionally, hybrids have a 50 year-plus history too. The first tomato hybrid was released in 1946.

Second, the assertion that all heirlooms are 'wild' or 'original' varieties, free of human intervention, is also false. Open pollination creates a constant cycle of change. To maintain an heirloom strain for seed production, growers must use tents, greenhouses or other enclosures to isolate the plants and prevent them from coming in contact with other pollen sources. That means pollinators must be controlled throughout the process as well. Technically, some heirlooms were created by crossing an heirloom and a hybrid variety. Again, if age and open-pollination are the only criteria, the number of plants that could classify as heirlooms might be much larger than we think.

Third, there is this wild claim that over-hybridization has drained the nutrition out of produce. One seed company's webpage claims that home gardening is the only means to "be in charge of your nutritional intake." Wow, what a grim outlook. So those people who either don't have the space, time or financial means to have a garden might as well just bypass the produce section or farmers market altogether? This company's claim is a blatant and outright lie. In fact, plant breeding has actually helped increase the nutritional content of many vegetables. Monsanto has developed a type of broccoli with three times the amount of a phytonutrient, glucoraphanin, as compared to other broccoli varieties. They also bred romaine and iceburg lettuces to create a hybrid green with folate and Vitamin C levels far and above those found in iceburg lettuce.

These kind of lies only contribute to the overreaching problem in this country regarding fresh produce consumption. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only one in ten consumers eat the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables. It's pretty easy to bypass the salad bar if you're under the impression that fresh produce is nutrient deficient. I guess that selling fear, not facts, is much more profitable for this non-hybrid seed proprietor.

Yes, some produce purchased at grocery stores is on the bland side, but that is due to the fact that it's harvested before being fully ripened, regardless of whether it's an heirloom variety, hybrid, organic or conventional product.

Fourth, heirlooms are to be prized because their seed can be saved and replanted from season to season, making them more 'natural,' their proponents say. Some seed dealers want to suggest that there's some conspiracy behind a gardener's inability to save seed from hybrid plants because that seed, if planted the following year, won't likely 'come true' or yield the same exact fruit as before. There's no conspiracy here, that's just a basic plant science fact. Not everyone has the time or means to save seed from year to year and, in the event of crop failure, it's important that there are still means of procuring seed. Many like to claim that hybrid seed is more expensive than heirlooms because of the time-consuming process. That may have been true in the past, but my survey of a 2017 seed catalog with both heirlooms and hybrids showed no significant price differences at all.

There's plenty of room in my garden, as there should be in yours, for both heirloom and hybrid plants. Cultivating and preserving heirlooms is fun for the home gardener and essential to maintain the genetic diversity plant breeders need to address the constant onslaught of pest and pathogens that attack our food supplies. Hybrids are necessary to keep those food supplies at adequate levels and lessen our reliance on crop treatments.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown

The great label letdown

Companies selling plants and seeds use misleading marketing claims to push fear and overlook facts


March 21, 2017 | 02:20 PM

It's time to buy that garden seed and scope out new plant material for spring planting. You've got lots of choices, or do you? Sure, you can select from four different colors of carrot seed, decide between bush vs. pole beans and choose a tomato that has tiny or gigantic fruit. Those are choices we can all appreciate. The choices I'm questioning have to do with those extra labels suppliers are choosing to universally slap on every seed packet or display—today's most popular claim is "non-GMO."

Let me start by saying I personally don't have a problem with genetically modified plant material. We've used GMO corn, soybean and sugar beet seed on our farm for years and have seen the environmental benefits it promises. We use fewer herbicides and fungicides and perform less tillage on the land thanks to the technology utilized by plant scientists. Additionally, numerous studies have shown (the latest being from the National Academy of Sciences in 2016) that genetically modified crops are safe for consumption. All have undergone testing and received approval by three federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

As a result, those "non-GMO" labels don't mean much to me. I wouldn't hesitate to use that kind of seed in my garden but the often overlooked fact is that I can't. There is no genetically modified vegetable seed currently available to home gardeners and likely won't be anytime in the near future.

Technically those now common labels are correct in that the pepper seed you purchase was not developed using genetic engineering. But I believe that label implies that somewhere there are GMO pepper plant seeds available and what you hold in your hand is somehow superior. That raises another issue—only a select few crops have been genetically engineered at the commercial level—and peppers aren't one of them. Besides field crops (corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa), there are just a handful of genetically engineered (GE) fruits and vegetables: papaya, sweet corn and summer squash. Three other GE foods have been approved by government agencies but aren't yet available for purchase—the Arctic apple, Innate potato and Aquabounty salmon.

Genetically engineered sweet corn seed can only be purchased through select companies that also sell seed to row crop growers (i.e. grain corn, soybeans). Summer squash that has a built-in resistance to crippling viruses is only available for purchase by commercial growers. As is the case with all GE seed, growers must sign agreements with the seed companies and follow federal regulations regarding these crops.

For the most part, seed companies see more benefits in using advanced breeding techniques in the vegetable market than with genetic modification. It takes an average of 10 years and significant funds to take a GE product from the research stage to market.

I understand that seed and plant companies have probably decided to add these extra pronouncements on their packaging for uniformity and convenience's sake but I find them misleading and unnecessary. As is typically the case, one company probably started and the rest followed suit so as to not appear inferior. I understand that this may seem like a trivial argument to make but I don't like marketing gimmicks of any kind especially when they involve food and food production. I see slippery slopes ahead and half truths should have no place in something as important in food. It hurts both the producer and consumer.

Here's an analogy to consider. You're shopping around for a new vehicle and want to get something that will protect your family in the event of an accident. A salesperson or sales brochure tells you that this particular SUV is tops in its class for crash safety ratings. While that may not be a lie, your eyes eventually scan the fine print and find your selection was only one of two vehicles tested in this particular category. Your model got two stars out of five and the other got one. Again, it's technically not a lie but some marketing type has opted to overlook the necessary background information and push what 'good' claims they can find.

We all like to have choices, but to suggest options exist when in fact they don't—that qualifies as a gimmick, in my opinion. In this particular case, unnecessary labeling on garden seed has only upped the 'fear factor' and confusion among consumers (and now gardeners) about what is and isn't in our bountiful and safe food supply.

Next week, I'll examine the marketing claims associated with heirloom and hybrid seed.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Castle Creek
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