The Tao of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe – Book Review

The most valuable parts to me

To me, the most valuable parts of this book are where she discusses the reasons, procedures and processes to create our own varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables. The reasons are excellent.  A home grown tomato, selected from the best tasting, and for your garden conditions, is a joy that no amount of money can buy; but you can grow.  This singular accomplishment is threatened by the disease called late blight.  As she points out, programs to develop new tomato strains that are resistant to late blight are likely to start with tomatoes selected for market.  Selected for uniformity, storage and mass growing conditions.

Heirlooms and open pollinated varieties, among others, may be completely lost unless home and small growers do their own work.  She gives concrete, how-to advice for de-hybridizing and creating crosses to come up with tomatoes that have the characteristics that we love in heirlooms plus the genes needed to confer resistance for late blight and other diseases.

She also goes into detail about creating landraces, using seed saving and genetic selection to produce plants that are most productive, flavorful, or colorful – you choose – for your own growing conditions.

Some Surprises

I’ve always thought that seeds were fragile and to keep them viable, they should be kept from getting too dry or being frozen.  Carol talks about using those processes to create a personal seed bank to preserve seeds for periods long beyond what I thought were possible.

Very interesting discussion about tomato taste and when to pick: late day, after the sun has warmed them, for her.  That’s not something that I’ve thought about.  If she’s right, most tomatoes purchased at a farmer’s market and picked the morning they are sold are not as full of flavor as they could be.  I imagine farmers would be overjoyed to find that they could pick the afternoon of the day before, (or a few days before for some varieties) sleep in and have better tasting tomatoes.

A few nit-picks. 

There is nothing wrong with Swiss Chard.  And I’m surprised as Carol really likes greens; it makes a wonderful counterpoint to the sweet winter squashes that she develops and grows.  I would never try to change Carol’s mind but you should try it for yourself and I would recommend you try it in Molly Katzen’s recipe, Pasta with greens and feta.

Regardless of the cover subtitle:  “Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy and Serenity”, it was hard for me to identify the audience that the author had in mind.  It gives some basic cultivation advice but not enough for most beginners to be successful.  That’s all right; there are other books that do this.  She mentions a lot of helpful resources beyond her own books.

The Taoist stories and sayings are amusing and entertaining but in my opinion, amount to a sort of “what ever” from a philosophical viewpoint. But then, the older I get, the more I resist any rigid belief system.  So maybe I am Taoist.  Whatever. <s>  When it comes to joy and serenity in the garden I am a long-time true believer and I can respect anyone who shares that and applaud anyone who wants to share it with others.

Unfortunately, with only room for about a dozen tomato plants; I grow only two or three of each variety (with no ability to rotate where they grow), I can’t afford even the modest space that she suggests to experiment.  So I hope some of you with a little more sunny space will read this book feel inspired. It’s probably less space and trouble than you think.

 

Critter wars

 

Brandywines in mesh
Brandywines in mesh

I mentioned my problems with chipmunks and watching them eat almost all of last year’s tomato crop.  They seem to have an uncanny ability to know when a tomato is going to turn color and demolish it the same day.  When I stopped at one of our local farm stands for some 4th of July raspberries, the woman who took my cash suggested mesh bags, like the ones that onions are sold in, to protect my crop.  It’s not really feasible for all of my crop, like the sprawling bunches of cherry tomatoes, but for some of my prized, large heirlooms, it may be.

I don’t honestly know if mesh will work.  The woman who made the suggestion had actually used brown paper bags.  She said that they’d worked well, even ripening the tomatoes more quickly, but she quickly learned that they had to be emptied and reset after every rain or they’d hold the water and rot the tomatoes.

The problem with mesh is that I know my little chipmunk friends can eat suet through the suet cage and I’ve seen them use their sharp little claws.  They may be able to eat the suet through the mesh.  Or maybe, the strangness of the stuff will deter, on its own.  Although I doubt that.  These are very tame chipmunks.

Black Krim in mesh bag
Black Krim in mesh bag

If a  coarse mesh will work, the easiest to apply is the plastic mesh “jackets” that they use to separate bottles of wine when they are packed two to a bag.  They don’t need to be tied, just slipped on.  And their natural stretch settles in around the  tomato and can easily expand as it grows.

I had a couple of different bags; the one that I purchased with limes in it had the smallest mesh.  It’s all an experiment.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

LED Lights and Seed Starting

tomato trees
tomato trees

All of the articles that I could find talked about growing things under LED lights were for just that purpose, growing things to maturity.  There were also some cautions about how they could hurt seedlings.  So I dithered about whether to use my old setup with shop lights or try the LED lights that I’d purchased for winter growing.  I think the things that decided me are first, the shop lights are getting old and the recommendation is to use new bulbs.  And second, the LED lights are cheap. My electric bills don’t show the use enough for me to know how much this lighting costs

I did hedge my bets and keep some of the seedlings under a single cool light fixture, but the ones that I put almost immediately under the LEDs did better.  I did keep the LEDs a couple of feet away.  I started lettuces and Piracicaba in the guest room under one light.  When these cool weather plants were ready to go out, I moved the light down to the basement to enlarge the warm planting area where I can provide bottom heat, giving the tomatoes, basil and eggplants more time while the outside temps warm up.

The area over floweth.  In addition to my seed starts, one of the dahlia companies sent me plants, not tubers, so I’m babying them on the heat mats that are no longer needed by the bigger seedlings.

My remaining worry is that the plants are so comfortable in the basement that they will sulk outside.  I’ve been removing suckers and even blossoms, which tells me that they are too happy.  Next year I move back the start date by at least two weeks (the seed went into the cubes on 3/25/2012.)  It’s also a clue that I should probably be using a more limited spectrum of lights for seedlings.  In addition, Supersweet 100 is the plant that wants to blossom so that also suggests a tomato I should try inside this winter, if I want to.  Here’s a shot under normal light for those of us who can’t see through the lurid LED colors.

more tomato trees
more tomato trees

Lettuce under LED lights, week two

Lettuces under normal light
Lettuces under normal light

The lettuces continue to put on mass.  The red colors in Yogoslavian Red (heading lettuce) are showing up nicely but it’s also the slowest growing.  And I cannot see a visible difference between Australian Yellow and Simpson Elite (with toothpicks). 

I split the soil cubes between two flats to give them more room and now I do a littly dosie doe with the flats every day to move the outside lettuces closer to the light. Fertilized again; I will drop back to once a month now, I think.

Just to recap, for people who stumble accross this post first:  Lettuces planted 10/23; sprouts show by 10/27; lights out and no heat 10/29-11/3; put under LED array on 11/8.  See Week One and It Begins for more history.

I ordered some “Red Sails” from Pinetree Seeds, an easier red leaf lettuce and I’ll start my next batch as soon as they arrive.  Hopefully, this weekend.

lettuces under LED array

Lettuce under LED lights – one week

Simpson Elite
Simpson Elite

The lettuces are definately adding mass, one week after the LED array was set up.  They didn’t get their first feed until yesterday:  Miracle Grow at the package strength.  (Sorry OGL folks, I promise, the next batch will be in a mix that includes compost.)  I forgot how little water seedlings grown in relatively cool conditions need; they should have been feed a week ago.

I’ve worried over the height of the lights and can’t find relevant information. 

Yugoslavian Red
Yugoslavian Red

The 90 watt light is supposed to cover a surface of four square feet.  At 12-18″ away, the Yogoslavian Red lettuces at the end of the flat seem to be straining for the light.  But they are showing some color.  Too much of this light, I read, can hurt small seedlings.  But I haven’t found a description of what that harm looks like, either.  There is a good reason that I call this an experiment.

At least for the next week, I’ll leave the light centered about 12′ above the flat, moving the flat daily so that each end is closer on alternate days.

lettuces week one
lettuces week one

Lettuce under LED lights – the experiment begins

lettuce sprout
lettuce sprout

I started lettuces on 10/23 and they were just showing green, under my usual florescent bulb starting mechanisms, when the power went out for five days.  I was worried that the sprouts would be too leggy and get my trials with an LED array off to a bad start, but after watching for a few days, these look fine.  I guess that the cooler house temperatures also slowed development. 

The light is an Illuminator UFO 5-Band Tri-Spectrum LED grow light.  I vaguely thought that I would start with simple lettuces but the leftovers from last spring didn’t really offer that choice, except for Simpson Elite, a popular leaf lettuce, so I started two rows of it.  And a row each (four 2″ soil cubes) of Australian Yellow (leaf) and Yugoslavian Red, my favorite heading lettuce.  A row of Red Velvet didn’t germinate for some reason, I have had that problem before with that seed; this was a replacement pack. Thus, the empty cubes in the last picture.

In spite of plans to take advantage of extra basement space with a well-designed setup, in my usual haphazard way, I stuck the light in the guest/junk room.  It uses the very sophisticated setup that I use in spring, two cross country skis over the tops of chairs and chains to hang the lights.  I left one florescent fixture in place for times when I want to work with the lettuces.  In just the time it takes me to get from the door to the outlet to unplug the LED array, my eyes are already complaining about the lurid pink glow. And everything is green while your eyes recover.

the setup
the setup

If anyone has advice about how long these lights should be on for lettuce, please speak up.  I keep the seed starting lights on for 16 hours a day but I think that may be too long for these.  Also, I suspect that day length has something to do with lettuce “heading up” so I’m thinking I should plan for some room to increase hours for that heading lettuce when it gets bigger.  I have been warned that lettuces grown under low lights could have dangerous levels of nitrates, and did some reading on that.  I do not know if “low light” applies to LED arrays.  And about the only plans I have to deal with this is to use a low nitrogen fertilizer and get one of my lettuces tested at harvest time.  I’ve also read that foods that have this problem taste bad so, guess what!  I won’t eat them if they taste bad!

lettuce under LED array
lettuce under LED array

Lawns and Leaves

Mulching mower
Mulching mower

I purchased a small Toro electric mower this spring and wondered if my lawn was too much for it.  I love its quiet ways, no worries about waking up the neighbors if I want to do an early morning mow.  But, let’s face it, my lawn is not a genteel expanse of grasses.  “Hey lady, is that Bugleweed (Ajuga) in your lawn?”  Why yes, how perceptive of you to have noticed!  I have both purple-leaved and green and n the spring it makes a lovely carpet of blue flowers that the pollinators love. I mow around the thickest spots until the bees abandon them. 

My initial impression of the mower was that it did’t have enough power to pull the grass upright before cutting it but that has not proved to be a problem. Somehow it gets cut.  It’s been doing it’s job all summer and there are no gouged and empty spots like the mowing company left from turning their big equipment in small places.

autumn nasturtium
autumn nasturtium

But this article is about another experiment.  I’m not going to rake the lawn this year.  I am going to try to mow the leaves in.  Although I’d heard it suggested before, a friend sent me this link to a Fine Gardening article that talks about Michigan State researchers who mowed an 18 inch! layer of leaves  into test plots. 

As you can see above, I don’t have much to lose.  So, this is the year I try it with my much lighter layers of leaves.  The season is slow in coming with many trees still green, but you can see my tiny eggbeater of a mower does make a dent in what’s there now. 

Rose Teasing Georgia

Some bonus shots.  The nasturtium are still going strong in the food beds; they keep me company as I clean, fork, and add compost.  They will melt after our first bad frost.

And this only blossom on rose “Teasing Georgia” was hanging about at eye level to cheer on my efforts.