Monday, July 28, 2014

Define your terms! Hybrid, heirloom, GMO, etc.

Every once in a while, we garden educators will break out into a rash of definitions, especially after hearing people toss words around without entirely understanding them. I'm getting the itch right now, so here's my effort to define some commonly used gardening terms.

  • Hybrid. In basic terms, hybridization is the crossing of two different species or varieties of plant, which can occur naturally; but when you see "hybrid" or "F1" in a catalog, it means that the seed has been produced by human intervention, by bringing the pollen from one plant to another in a controlled fashion to purposefully create or emphasize certain characteristics, such as disease resistance, flavor, size, or early harvest. Hybrid seed can be a good choice if these characteristics matter to you - for example, if you have a regular problem with cucumber mosaic virus, you'll want to choose plants that have been bred to be resistant. It usually costs more than open-pollinated seed, and you'll have to buy it again every year (or when your packet is empty). F1 hybrid plants do not produce stabilized seed; if you save seed from them and plant it, the resulting plants will likely have a different mix of characteristics from the F1's parent plants. I've done this inadvertently, especially with hybrid cherry tomatoes such as Sun Gold - the fruit falls before it can be picked, and next year you get some volunteer seedlings that might be orange cherries that don't taste quite as good, or tiny little red fruits on a ridiculously vigorous vine, or something else entirely.
  • Open-Pollinated. Open pollination means that pollen is transferred by means of natural mechanisms, such as wind or insects. Some plants self-pollinate, meaning that the pollen moves only from one flower to another (or within one flower) on the same plant, and some cross-pollinate, meaning that pollen will easily move from one plant to another of the same species. There are many subcategories and a lot of wiggle room within this, but let's not get too complicated. Just know that if you're growing beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, and a few other species, self-pollination is the most likely thing to happen, and with many other vegetable species, cross-pollination can occur, which means that if you want to breed true-to-type seed, you need to keep different varieties of the same species isolated. If you manage this, and plant the resulting seed, you'll get plants very similar to the parent, because open-pollinated seed is stabilized. They will not, however, be genetically identical to the parent, because this doesn't happen in natural reproduction. Open-pollinated seed usually maintains a fair amount of genetic diversity.
  • Heirloom. All heirloom plants are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. There are different definitions for "heirloom," some of which rely on how old the variety is (say, more than 50 years), and some of which talk about the seed having been passed down in a family or community.
Therefore, by our usual definitions, hybrid and open-pollinated are the two major categories of seed and plants, with heirlooms being a subcategory of open-pollinated. It's possible for hybrid varieties to be bred until they achieve stabilization and are considered to be open-pollinated. Some people consider older commercial open-pollinated varieties to be heirlooms, so you could have a hybrid variety become an heirloom, given time and a lot of breeding work. It's important to understand that nearly all garden varieties of plants result from some human intervention along the way, whether it's in a commercial facility, a farmer's field, or Grandma's back yard. We tend to want certain characteristics in our vegetables and flowers, and to select for them; this is artificial rather than natural selection (to our benefit, not the plant's), but it's still a long-term process involving the plant's natural method of reproduction.
  • GMO. A genetically modified organism, on the other hand, is created by implanting genes from one species (plant or animal) into another species whose DNA would not normally contain them: lab work, not field breeding, done for a specific purpose that in theory improves the resulting species. GMO seed can be hybrid or open-pollinated. This process is still controversial, but has made a lot of plants easier to grow. We can support or condemn the method as consumers or as farmers, but as home gardeners it's pretty much irrelevant to us: if you wanted GMO seed for your own garden, you'd find it hard to get hold of. It's just not sold in the catalogs we use. (Note: this is not the same as saying that no home garden seed purchases will benefit companies that do sell GMO seed. This is a separate issue that you can address as a consumer.)
I hear a lot of confusion out there between hybrids and GMO plants, and between non-organic methods and GMO growing. Just because you use hybrid or non-organic seed, or use chemical fertilizers or pesticides on your garden, you are not "a GMO person." We have a lot of choices in gardening, as we do when we shop for food, and make them for personal reasons. Some of us may not want to buy food made from GMO products because we're uncertain of their effects; some of us may want to grow heirloom plants because we love history or think the flavor is superior; some of us may feel we need to discourage severe outbreaks of insects with pesticides (after educating ourselves about their use, and trying less aggressive solutions); some of us want the relative security of a hybrid variety that is known to resist a common disease or produce reliably before the end of the season. I'm not going to discourage anyone's choices, but I do think it's important to make the choices based on good information and understanding of what the words we use actually mean.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


In conjunction with this Saturday's Grow It Eat It Garden Event and the tomato tasting, here's something you can do with some of the tomatoes once they're harvested.

Brought in from the rather slow garden some Siberian tomatoes yesterday. I originally tried the variety thinking they'd be perfect for a friend who grows for her family's wine bar/cafe in the Adirondacks, which has a MUCH shorter growing season than we do. I figured if they'll produce in Siberia, they'll produce in North Creek. They didn't do all that well up there sadly. But here on the upper Eastern Shore they are some of the earliest to ripen. Golf-ball sized and not as juicy as slicers, they roast beautifully.

Marinated roasted Siberian tomatoes ready to go on bread
 Slice them in half, scoop out the bulk of juice and seeds with one swipe of your thumb, then spread them in a single layer cut-side up on a rimmed cookie sheet to catch any juice. Chop garlic ( I use the fresh roja garlic I've recently pulled from the garden), a dash of kosher salt, grind of pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Roast in a 325F oven for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until they are starting to shrivel and release their juices but are not dry. You can tell it's time when the garlic starts to smell really fragrant and just begins to brown. When cool, layer them in a container and sprinkle each later with white wine vinegar and a little more olive oil. Cover and refrigerate. They keep for at least a week. These make a great snack on crackers, or lunch on a slice of toasted baguette, whole grain bread spread with a little goat cheese and topped with a basil leaf or two.

Things to do at this Saturday's GIEI event in Montgomery County

1. Show off your tomatoes, if you got 'em. Please, we really need your tomatoes. We'll have a tomato tasting, and you can also bring seeds and recipes to share, as well as learning about several ways to cook tomatoes, how to save seeds from them, and what diseases and pests they might be suffering from. But I'm sure your tomatoes are perfect.

2. Help us figure out why our demo garden tomatoes are less than perfect this year. But everything else is splendid - and it's the Year of Cucurbits and our cucurbits are doing just fine, thank you! Helps to have practically no pests, thanks to our frigid winter.

3. But if there are any squash bugs (or their eggs or nymphs) lurking on our squashes, you can attend a talk that will help you recognize them and learn what to do about them. Along with dozens of other pests and diseases.

4. If you're an early bird, you can also hear me talk about how to keep animals out of your garden (event starts at 8:30, talk is at 9). I hear the weather's going to be great, though, so maybe you should spend the whole time out in the garden. So much going on inside, though! You'll want to be two places at once all morning.

5. Luckily, the informative talk and demonstration about building low tunnels for fall and winter gardening is outside at 10:15. And next to it, you can learn how to build garden structures with bamboo, including a nice trellis for your fall peas. And we have folks who are eager to tell you how and when to grow all your fall veggies. It may still be summer, but it's time to think fall!

6. Watch us dig early potatoes! We may also pick a few mouse melons.

7. Visit our straw bales burgeoning with plants, and speculate about why they are winning this year's informal competition with the container veggies.

8. And if you're a small-space gardener, learn how much our 100-square-foot garden team is getting out of their tiny plot!

9. Make sure to check out our children's garden, with the growing Tunnel of Gourds, the popcorn plant (it doesn't grow popcorn, it smells like it!), the adorable fairy garden in a pot, the plants with animal names, and the Turtle of Succulents!

10. Also check out our composting operation, our fruit and herbs and butterfly garden and ponds; visit the plant clinic and the tool care table and the pollinator information table; pick up a free recycling bin. In other words, learn things and have fun!

More information and directions at this link - scroll  down to July 26. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Colorado Intrepretation on Raised Bed Construction

Having recently returned from Colorado, I thought I would share a unique method of rapidly assembling a raised bed.  While this method probably works well in Rifle, Colorado where rainfall during the summer is minimal, It would not work in Maryland due to soil moisture causing wood rot.

The method used is to embed pallets in the ground, wire them together and line the vertical walls with plastic to conserve soil moisture.  They back filled the raised bed with manufactured soil (composted lama manure and soil) and planted the beds.  The pipes in the corners are used to water the garden.  Interesting design.

Another interesting design feature in the same garden was their so called "Keyhole" garden.  This garden is made using bricks or block, back filled and a small wire cage placed in the center to act as a compost pile (too small and dry to do much composting).  This design could be incorporated into a patio landscape and would be great for herbs.

As we were leaving, the work crew of 5 and 6 year olds showed up to plant some of the unplanted raised beds.  All of the produce from this garden is donated to needy families in the town of Rifle, Co.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Vegetable garden bloggers' bloom day

Garden bloggers all know (or should) about the monthly event, hosted at May Dreams Gardens, known as Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. I usually join in from my Rogue Eggplant blog to show off my flowers, but why shouldn't the vegetable garden get to join in? Here's some of what's blooming today in the Derwood Demo Garden's veggie beds.

First of all, ta-da! Our cardoons are flowering.

Cardoons are some of my favorite flowers ever, enormous bright blue-purple thistle-like explosions, usually with bee accompaniment. The first two have popped out and we have a lot more buds waiting. You should be able to catch the show at our Grow It Eat It Open House on July 26. (More info here.)

Other veggie plants in bloom:

Runner bean 'Hestia'
A tangle of flowering radishes in the straw bales
Cucumbers - very prolific!
Flower on the end of a tromboncino squash
Vegetable flowers are fabulous - and quite a few of them are edible! I'm really wishing I'd taken that squash flower home so I could stuff it and fry it up…