Archives for posts with tag: diversity

A couple of weeks ago, I read a gardening article that might be the first one I have ever seen that makes a case for not starting plants from seed (see “Roots and Shoots: How Homegrown Is Necessary?” which appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of Philipstown.info The Paper).  Pamela Doan’s column does include simple and useful instructions for starting a garden indoors in winter (with an emphasis on tomatoes) but starts off with her reasons why she doesn’t do it.

It’s nice to see someone bucking the conventional wisdom, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I’m a complete believer in starting from seed when possible but I recognize that doing so can seem like a lot of effort.  If the choice were between buying seedlings or doing nothing, I would buy the seedlings (as I did in 2011 and 2012).  Like most gardening projects, however, sowing seeds requires intermittent bouts of close attention—often accompanied by intensive activity—but little effort otherwise.  Once the seed trays have been set up and are safely tucked into a warm and well-lit location, they take care of themselves for the most part.  Only a modest investment of time is needed.  Potting up requires another infusion of time but the task is not much different from setting out, something that must be done whether the seedlings are home-grown or store-bought.

Similarly, the financial investment needn’t break the bank.  Unquestionably, one can spend a lot of money on seed starting apparatuses, depending on size, features and aesthetic appeal.  And the cost of specially formulated grow lights and heating coils specifically designed for seed trays is ridiculously high (a case, I think, of commercial opportunism).  Expensive whistles and bells will not necessarily be of benefit to so basic an operation.  Fortunately for one’s pocketbook, for example, plain fluorescent lights and utilitarian heating pads work just as well as their high-end counterparts.

In fact, as we found out last year (see February 18, 2013), a spacious and efficient seed starting apparatus can be put together for very little money.  Our modified shelving unit (including lights, pads, and seed trays) cost less than $200 and can accommodate 432 seedlings on three shelves (with two shelves left over).  A smaller apparatus would be proportionally less money.

The unit should last essentially forever; there will be no new expenses year to year so the effective cost, amortized over its expected life, is even less.  Further, it can be used for storage off season (a mixed blessing; see January 8, 2014).  Existing shelves similarly modified would be more economical and a sunny windowsill, for those lucky enough to have one, is even cheaper.

The most eye-opening of Ms. Doan’s arguments against starting from seed is her primary contention that most seed companies put too many seeds in each packet.  To her, this means planting more of any given vegetable than perhaps she would like.  The result, given overall constraints of time and space, is a lesser variety of vegetables.  Either that or wasted seeds.

I’ll admit that last year we started more seeds than we needed (72 basil plants; really?).  But that was due to inexperience and pessimism.  With no idea of what rate of germination to expect and a firm commitment to planting only our own seedlings, we erred on the conservative side.  We didn’t let that impact our decisions about what to grow, however.  Instead, we gave away as many seedlings as we could foist off on people and, with some regrets, cast what we couldn’t use onto the refuse pile (see, for example, May 4, 2013, part 2).

The startling part of the surfeit-of-seeds concept, though, is the implication that all of the seeds in a packet must be planted at once.  This notion never occurred to me.  I am frugal (some would say cheap) about many things (but by no means all) and always intended to save the seeds I did not plant last spring to use again this year.  The average seed life is printed on each packet and most are theoretically good for two years or more.

I say “theoretically” because, of course, seed life depends on how the seeds are stored between planting seasons.  We kept our seeds safely inside a small box in the basement.  There, they were protected from light and excessive heat and moisture.  It can get warm and humid here in July and August—and last year was particularly torrid—but the basement is partially underground which mitigates the extreme weather conditions.  The small volume of the box should have further minimized the effects of summer.  (Some would suggest storing seeds in the freezer, as we did with seeds from two years ago; unfortunately, they are too easily forgotten that way, by which I mean that I forgot about them.)  Even after a year, the seeds should still be viable.

So now we’re in the process of finding out whether they actually are.  Our plan this year is to sow fewer seeds of each type of vegetable and, possibly, to plant additional varieties (this would require buying more seeds or, later in the season, seedlings).  So far, we have only planted herbs (six seeds of six varieties) and lettuce (six seeds of two varieties).

The lettuces are sprouting at about a 50 percent success rate while only two herb varieties (basil and rosemary) have germinated.  Herbs are notoriously slow to get started but I should note that all of the herbs except the basil have an average seed life of only one year.  I may be pushing my luck—and the limits of my faith (see February 19, 2014).

Contrary to the Roots and Shoots article, there is more than bragging rights to be gained from growing plants from seed.  It is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get the garden started and to jump back into the gardening spirit, even in the midst of winter.  And for a control freak like me, it is the only way to grow exactly what I want and to know everything about my plants.  The bragging—and blogging—rights are a nice bonus.

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While we were visiting a friend in his home (lucky us, he had invited us for one of his fantastic brunches), he asked about the purple string beans:  Do they, he wondered, taste any different from the green ones?

It is a good question.  Purple is an unusual color in the vegetable garden, second only to blue in rarity (is there any blue comestible other than blueberries?).  And while color is not always an indicator of flavor—the taste of red and green apples is not that different, for instance—it can be, especially when the color difference is due to ripeness, or lack thereof.

The answer to our friend’s question, though, is:  No; the purple string beans taste more or less the same as do the green ones.  In fact, as the beans cook, the purple fades away, leaving only the familiar green tint.  This is because heat and loss of acidity (due to dilution in neutral water) break down the anthocyanins that produce the color purple.  Chlorophyll, the green pigment (and component of photosynthesis), is apparently more stable.  (If we grow the purple string beans again next year—which is likely—I might try cooking a batch in vinegar or lemon juice to see whether that preserves the purple color.)

That matter resolved, I’ll ask my own follow-up questions:  What about the other vegetables growing in our garden?  Does their color dictate the flavor?

Well, as an indicator of ripeness, sure.  An unripe green tomato has a vastly different taste compared to a ripe red one.  We don’t grow them here, but apples (and most other fruits) exhibit this property.  It should be noted, however, that not all vegetables change color as they ripen.  Eggplant, for instance, starts purple and stays purple throughout its growth (and even its blossoms are tinged with purple).

But what about different colors of ripe tomato?  Do the yellow and orange varieties have a different flavor from the traditional red ones?  How about tomatoes that are green when ripe?  Furthermore, are the differences in flavor, if any, due to the color or is the color just an indicator of the difference?

Answering the last question first, I think the color is merely an indicator of a difference in flavor and not the cause of it.  The various colors of tomato do have varying flavors but the variations are due to different levels of sugar and acidity.  And as noted above, pigments react very differently to acidity.  Typical red tomatoes are relatively high in acidity so acid-resistant pigments like carotenoids (of which lycopene is the most common in tomatoes) will dominate their color.

At the other end of the spectrum (in both flavor and color), orange, yellow, green and purple (sometimes referred to as black) tomatoes are sweeter in flavor, a result of their being lower in acid.  Another consequence of higher pH is that pigments less resistant to acid, such as the anthocyanins, can survive in their colored state and contribute to the tomatoes their distinctive hues.  In other words, the pigments act as a natural litmus test to visually signify flavor.

This is only a quasi-scientific analysis but it makes sense, at least for the tomatoes.  In addition to the tomatoes, we also planted different colors of carrots, radishes, beets and bell peppers this year.  To my taste buds, the red and white-striped Chioggia beets tasted the same as the Touchstone Gold and neither tasted any different from the typical all-red variety.

Similarly, there was only one significant difference between the taste of our Quadrato d’Asti Rosso (red) and Orange Sun (guess) bell peppers and the common green variety.  The peppers we grew tasted less grassy, a flavor component that I can only call “green”.  This is a good thing because that grassiness usually puts me off bell peppers.

Our radish crop was not sufficiently successful to make an assessment of their flavors but the carrots, which flourished a wide rainbow of colors, also yielded an array of flavors.  The orange were the most typical (no surprise there) while the yellow and white were woodier and the purple were sweeter.  The range in flavor was not quite as great as in color or as stark as with the tomatoes but there was definitely a correlation.

On this fine summer afternoon, we found ourselves looking for an outdoor activity, one that did not involve manual labor or anything that might be construed as work.  It is not as if we don’t have anything to do—our list of chores is very long and there is never a shortage of things to be done on a Saturday.  But we were in need of some downtime.  So we decided to make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.

With some dismay, I realized that we have not been here since last fall (see September 16, 2012, part 2).  That means we completely missed spring and what would undoubtedly have been a dazzling display of blossoming trees, daffodils, irises and peonies (luckily, we got to see most of those at home).  On the other hand, while our previous visits have occurred in March, June and September, this is our first trip in July.

We were expecting that in the peak of summer, the colors would be primarily green; there are fewer plants that flower this time of year than in spring and it is much too early (thank goodness!) for fall coloratura.  However, the gardeners and landscape designers at Stonecrop have done an excellent job of diversifying the plantings and we were very happy to find many flowers in bloom.

Most notable is an impressive variety of lilies.  In our neighborhood, the majority of lilies is wild and of the tiger type:  dark orange with darker orange stripes.  In our ornamental garden, we have a bright yellow variety.  Here at Stonecrop, though, the lilies range from pink (both pale and Pepto) to peach to blood red (with yellow stripes) and back to yellow (although a much paler lemon shade, compared to ours).  The petals vary from short and wide to long and narrow (almost spidery in some cases).

Also of note (and as I have noted before) are the leafy groundcovers that fill many of the beds.  In addition to the typical green, we saw purple, yellow and blue (well, bluish) varieties.  And among the green-leafed types, some have variegated leaves with accents of red, yellow or white.

We were happy with the broad spectrum of colors on view.  Even happier were the bees and other pollinators who were busily making their rounds of the beckoning flowers.

A recent article by Pamela Doan in the June 21, 2013 issue of The Paper (see “When It’s Okay to Kill a Plant”) led me to some further reflections on tree removal.  I share the writer’s angst over removing a tree—or any other plant in the garden, for that matter—and, like the author, I also agonize over the decision (see, for example, February 6, 2013).  I agree that there are several factors to consider and believe that removing a tree should not be undertaken lightly.

One issue she did not address is that often, removing a tree improves the conditions for the trees that remain.  For example, we live in a deeply wooded area where there is little to check the growth of the trees.  Each year, thousands of maple seed whirligigs twirl to the ground and many, if not most, of them germinate.  I (and my aching back) know this because hundreds of seedlings pop up in our gardens and patio areas every spring.  I must pull them out like weeds lest the house be swallowed up.

A proportionally larger number of seedlings sprout in the woods where there is no one to pull them out.  Instead, they take root firmly, continue to grow unabated and, with the passing years, become taller and larger.  They all crowd together like riders on a subway train, producing a dense canopy of sun-seeking branches above and a deeply-shaded understory below.  Commuters lucky enough to get a seat on the subway during rush hour know how it feels to be beneath the tangle of outstretched limbs.

The trees produce elongated trunks as they push their leafy tops higher and higher in search of a clear view of the sun (imagine the subway riders standing on tiptoe to read the advertisements that form a frieze along the sides of each car).  The trees wind up over-tall, spindly and top-heavy.  Aesthetically, they are lacking and the inefficiency of their shape cannot be good for their health.  Also, the preponderance of maple trees crowd out other varieties, reducing the diversity of species (probably 3 of 4 or 8 of 10 trees around us is a maple).

In a better world (or, at least, a better woods), I would take the same approach to the maple trees as I do with the radishes and beets:  thin early, thin often.  A larger spacing would lead to fuller trees that would not need to grow as high to gather their solar radiation (and they would look better) while still shading the forest floor.  Fewer maples would allow other tree varieties—oak, elm, poplar, even evergreens—a chance to increase their numbers and would make the entire woods less susceptible to harmful diseases or insects.

Like the crowding on rush-hour mass transit, it is a situation that is not easily changed.  I have often surmised that we could spend a week with a chainsaw, pruning and culling, and hardly make a noticeable difference in the local population density, never mind the entire woods or beyond.  Instead, we will take it tree by tree and consider the possible beneficial impacts—incremental and local though they may be—that could result from a tree’s removal.