Archive for December, 2010

I made the switch to all heirloom or open-pollinated seed varieties in 2009. My main concern in doing this was saving my own seed in order to reduce future seed costs and to have the ability to trade seed with other gardening friends. Saving seed for me is a great connection to the earth, and completes the life cycle. The whole point of a fruit, after all, is seed dispersal.

Some home gardeners swear by hybrids and love to buy them. And they do. Every year. I have no problem with people planting hybrids. The companies develop them to have disease resistance, grow in less than favorable conditions, such as less water or maybe less sunlight. Some also have more herbicide resistance as well. Almost all commercial varieties of crops are hybrids.

A modern seed company will make most or all of its monies from the sale of hybrid seeds. I have no problem with this at all. Hybrids can be a great option for beginning gardeners who want to grow successful produce without extra work. Hybrid seeds often come with a large markup because the company must make new hybrid seed every year. They hand-pollinate Proprietary Parent #1 with Proprietary Parent #2 and harvest all the seed from the fruits grown. This is an F1 Hybrid and the seeds from those fruits (now called F2) will not grow “true” if planted, but will show various traits of each or both parents.

The problem comes in when I was reading my 2011 large seed company catalog yesterday. I ordered from this company in the past and haven’t had a problem with them before.

Here’s the problem:

This is an "Heirloom" tomato collection. Notice anything?

Look closely at the 2nd tomato variety. It is called “Burpee’s Supersteak Hybrid.” But wait–I thought this was an heirloom tomato collection? My first impression of this listing: [laughing] “Hey babe, they’re including a hybrid in this heirloom collection!” Eyebrows go up all around. A closer reading of the collection is that it is an heirloom taste collection. So they admit that they’re including a hybrid, but swear that it tastes just like an heirloom. Still, it’s misleading.

I continue reading the catalog (hey, I’m a gardener, to me this is a magazine). Then I come to this listing:

Hmmm, this listing of a Hybrid is tagged as an Heirloom. What gives?

My first impression is that this company made a mistake in their catalog. They accidentally identified this hybrid variety as an heirloom. It’s possible that this variety is actually an heirloom, but I only know of one heirloom that retained the name “hybrid” and that’s the squash “Essex Hybrid.” It means it was a hybrid at one point but has since been grown out and stabilized to be true to type and open pollinated. But the key word in the listing above is “our.” Possessing a variety indicates ownership. You can’t own a variety technically, unless it’s a proprietary hybrid.

These two pieces of evidence could be dismissed as mistakes or harmless mislabeling. Until the third piece of evidence was discovered:

This most famous of hybrid tomatoes is labelled as an Heirloom. Cause it's old, right?

Okay, the secret’s out. This is the Burpee catalog. This hybrid tomato variety is probably the most famous and most well known and possibly the most recognized variety of tomato out there. But it’s still a hybrid. So why is it labelled an heirloom?

Let’s go back to basics and define what an heirloom is. Unfortunately, there is a matter of debate among gardeners about the particulars. But it is generally agreed upon that an heirloom seed will:

  • be open pollinated. This means that seed saved from the vegetable/fruit will make fruit exactly resembling the parent. Assuming it is not cross pollinated.
  • be at least 50 years old. This point is debated because some newer open-pollinated varieties have become fast favorites but aren’t yet 50. An example is Green Zebra, which wasn’t widely distributed until the 1980s, even though it existed back to the early 60s as a stable variety.
  • Should have a history attached. This means that a variety called Aunt Gertie’s Gold should have some relation to a woman named Gertie (and it would help if she was an Aunt) who grew the variety in the family for a bunch of years, etc. This part of the definition is optional, but a great inclusion.

So an heirloom is above all an open-pollinated variety. It may or may not be at least 50 years old and/or have a known history.

So what is the big deal about calling “Big Boy” tomato a heirloom? Does it meet the definition:

  • is it 50+ years old? Hmmm, the catalog says it is from 1949. That’s 61 years, so yes.
  • does it have a history? Well it was probably developed by Burpee to be sold (and patented) by Burpee. Probably developed with certain traits in mind, mainly for size and color. Possibly production and disease resistance. But we may never know for sure. The parents of this hybrid remain proprietary.
  • is it open pollinated? No.

I could have skipped the first two questions. A hybrid will never (ever) be an heirloom even if it meets 2 out of the 3 requirements unless it is open pollinated. So a hybrid can’t be anything other than a hybrid. Period, end of story.

So why does this matter so much? Words have meaning. If this company says, well this hybrid is over 50 years old, (even though they have to physically make the seed with the two secret parents each year), so why can’t we call it an heirloom? It is owned by Burpee and will always be owned by Burpee, so it is an heirloom we’ll pass on to the next Burpee employees on a need-to-know basis. In this sentence, “it” refers not to the tomato, but the genetic recipe for the tomato plant.

Stretching the definition of words to suit your own views is dangerous. It is misleading. Growers can look at this catalog and get excited because they have now been given the license by Burpee to call a hybrid an “heirloom.” They can take this seed and grow it out. Then take the fruit to their farmer’s market and tell all their patrons that they are buying “heirloom” tomatoes. It’s a lie. If by chance a patron decided this was the best tomato ever and saved the seed, they’d grow wild card plants that don’t look anything like the “Big Boy” tomato they’d eaten. They could then get fed up with “heirlooms” that don’t grow true and feel negative to them forevermore.

That is a long-shot. But it’s in the catalog not once but 3 times. If we start to erode even this simple distinction, what’s the gain and what’s the loss? Burpee may gain a few more seed packet sales. Gardeners will lose space for genuine heirlooms in their gardens. And farmer market gardeners can gain a fake label for their fruits and possibly make more sales.

Burpee must have caught on that heirloom seeds are getting to be a real trend (read market share) in gardening today. They want to get in more on this heirloom market so they just call their hybrids “heirlooms” and hope gardeners won’t  notice long enough to shell out their money. What other reason is there?

Of course, they could try selling more actual heirloom varieties. But there is one glaring exception: the Burpee company developed the first yellow zucchini. It was an open pollinated variety from the start and has a great history attached to it. It is probably over 50 years old by now so it is an heirloom variety in every sense of the definition. But it is not being sold by Burpee for 2011. It’s a mind bender. . .


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After pouring over my 2010 catalogs for months on end, and making a long list of ‘maybes’ I finally finalized and narrowed down my seed list and placed the orders last night. Whew!

I ordered from two places and will be getting:

  • 1 beet, a new vegetable for us
  • 1 bean, maybe just maybe I’ll be successful at beans this year
  • 1 watermelon, an orange one
  • 1 huckleberry, new fruit
  • 1 flower (gasp, I know), calendula which for my credit is edible
  • 1 herb, cinnamon basil
  • 1 kale
  • 6 new tomatoes
  • 5 new peppers

Plus I have 2 new tomatoes I got in a trade; and 3 new peppers from a trade. My main problem now becomes finding room for everything. . .

After my seedlings are growing then I’ll add the specifics to my Seed List page for quick reference.

2011 Seed Cost: just over $50
Ordered from: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Tomato Growers Supply Co.

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There are whole books out there about growing really big tomatoes (rbts). Outside of great soil, fertile amendments, and proper staking, spacing, and pruning, sometimes getting an rbt is a stroke of luck. It’s called a mega-bloom.

A real live megabloom: It is 5 or 8 times bigger than a single tomato flower.

I’ve had the privilege of watching megablooms grow in my garden 2 years now (from the same variety: Carbon). This freak of nature creates the ultimate of siamese twins. Sometimes the flower was “supposed” to be 5 or 6 or more separate blooms that for some reason or the other got fused together in a tomato flower mishmash.

When fertilized, the fruit grows into a monster: a twisted, convoluted mass of flesh called the rbt or winner of the heaviest tomato contests.

The megabloom has given birth to a budding mega tomato

When you’re the proud parent of such an oddity, you have a love of a fruit that is so irregular no one else sees the beauty in it. It might have catfacing, cracking, unsightly seams or in the case of my Carbon freak, physical twisting of its convoluted shape with smaller siamese twins attached—sometimes with their own stems.

My convoluted mass of tomato flesh weighs 1 lb 4 oz.

This was one tomato fruit that had it been a human child it surely wouldn’t have survived the womb. It is one fruit that should have been at least 3. Bu the beauty of it all is that it is edible. Tasty, even delicious. Freak or not, my toungue can’t tell the difference.

Mega tomato, top view. This was picked 6 weeks after the megabloom was pictured.

Should you spot the mythical mega-bloom in your garden, watch with wonder as the rbt grows before your eyes. Then at last, when your convoluted mass of tomato flesh is ripe, take a picture before you dig in with both elbows. A tomato this odd is one worth remembering.

RBTs of Years Past (All of my RBTs of this sort have been Carbon tomatoes):

This one grew so convoluted, it wrapped around itself forming a doughnut.

These tomatoes could be twinsies: both are from megablooms.

Further Reading:

Garden Notes: Loads of Tomatoes (megablooms on Carbon, Purple Russian)
Water Sun Dirt (megablooms on Tasty Evergreen)
Gone Feral in Idaho (megablooms on Black Krim)

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The Berry Bible by Janie Hibler

Despite the beautiful potential of the original (hardback) cover, this book is thick, wordy, and lacking the info I was expecting. Even in her introduction, she explains that not every berry is covered. Not every berry is pictured either, even though many types of blackberries and raspberries are pictured—all looking the same to me. Also, some fruit is pictured and not discussed, such as the pink and white currants. In the A-Z section, the relevant information to me would be: what does the plant look like, what does the fruit look like (color, size), and what does the fruit taste like? These key questions are not directly addressed, but some of that information can be gleaned from picking it out of the named paragraphs. The sections of info included about each berry are: name, classification, habitat & distribution, history, commercial growth, how to pick, how to buy, how to store, and notes for the cook. For example: she doesn’t describe the berry itself (or the flavor) but does mention that they will stain. So the berry therefore must be dark colored, right?

I would rewrite those sections as: Plant Growth and Range; Berry Information (info about season of ripeness, berry size and color, taste and traditional or native uses); How to Find (either commercially or wild picked), and Other useful information (such as picking tips, storage tips, and cleaning and cooking tips).

If you approach this book as a cookbook only, you’ll be rewarded with tons of recipes in every category you can imagine. But if you approach it like I did, as a “bible” of berry information, you will be disappointed. There are 70 pages of berry info (the “bible” section of the book, in my opinion), and 236 pages of recipes. There is also a section of colored photographs of some berries, but when you realize how many are not covered, this section become a bitter reminder of lost oportunities.

Original (hardback) Cover Art: This cover implies a botanical and historical wealth of information could be inside. Alas, it is not meant to be. . . The new cover as changed brings the focus back to using berries in the kitchen which is admittedly the true purpose of this book. 

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This tasty soup can be easily made with chicken too. The tomatoes really perk up otherwise flat tasting turkey stew. Serves 6

The Stew:
1 1/2 to 2 cups chopped cooked turkey meat
4 cups turkey broth
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup carrots, diced
1 small onion, diced
1 14 oz can stewed tomatoes
1 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried parsley
1/4 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup flour

The Dumplings:
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp dried parsley
1 egg

Start by heating a bit of oil in the bottom of a soup pot and adding in the diced onions. Cook over medium heat until onions are transparent. Then add in the celery, carrots, and turkey meat. Cook briefly. Add in flour, thyme, salt, pepper and parsley. Stir to coat the veggies with the flour.

Add in the broth and the tomatoes. Turn heat up and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes or so.

Waiting for the soup to boil.

Meanwhile, make the dumplings by heating the water and butter in a small sauce pan to boiling. Measure out the flour, baking powder and parsley in a small bowl and stir to combine. Once the water and butter is boiling, quickly dump in the dry flour mixture and stir vigorously until a dough is formed. Remove from heat and let cool while the soup simmers.

This formed into a dough in mere seconds.

When the 15 minutes of simmering time is almost up, combine 1 egg with the cooled dumpling dough, whipping smooth (an immersion blender is excellent for this, otherwise just use a fork and a lot of elbow grease).

Drop the finished dumpling dough by tablespoons into the stew and cover with a lid. Cook with lid on for 20 minutes. At the end of cooking time, the dumplings will have more than doubled in size like fluffy pillows. Stir gently to scrape any veggies from the bottom of the pot.

I could almost take a nap on these fluffy dumplings.

Ladle into soup bowls.

Like my whisk? Check it out here. It’s super great at making roux and gravies. 

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Chocolate & Zucchini by Clotilde Dusoulier

This is a beautiful little book with very interesting recipes from a real French woman who happens to have a blog. I never heard of her until the title came up somewhere in passing. I mistakenly thought her book would feature either chocolate or zucchini in every recipe. Nope. She didn’t even have a recipe that included both ingredients until after she named her blog that. She chose a very classic chocolate cake, by the way.

Since the book didn’t meet my expectations, I will not be making any of her recipes. I’m not into French cooking (sorry Julia!), and the titles of the recipes being in French puts me off despite my 5 years as a French student. I like to page through and glance at the titles to see if I’d make the recipe. Since it’s in French (the English is just underneath but I can’t read the font easily), I have to go by the photographs (which are superb, by the way—I wish I could take food photos as good as her!) But anyway, it’s probably a great book if you are already a fan of hers, she’s an excellent writer and her recipes seem authentic and delicious. I do have to say though, her Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Marbles should be called by their proper name: Buckeyes. I’m an Ohioan, people.


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These seasonally appropriate muffins are both healthy and delicious.

These are so perfect at Thanksgiving time. I usually make up a batch and let everyone snack on them for breakfast or whatever and they’re gone in a flash. If you’re unsure about the orange zest, just include half as much to start. I always make mini-muffins: this recipe will make 24 minis, or 12 regular sized.

1 cu white flour
1 cu whole wheat flour
½ cu plus ¼ cu sugar (divided)
¼ cu cornmeal or ground flax seed
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 1/2 cu whole cranberries (fresh or frozen)
2 peeled whole oranges

1 egg at room temp
1/2 cu water
¼ cu sour cream or yogurt
¼ cu oil

Directions:1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease your muffin tins.

2. Combine dry ingredients (only ½ cu sugar) in large bowl.

3. In food processor, rough chop cranberries, orange zest, peeled oranges and ¼ cu sugar.

Dry ingredients in larger bowl; wet ingredients in the smaller.

4. Mix cranberry mixture with remaining wet ingredients, then fold into dry ingredients.

Pouring wet ingredients into dry; about to fold.

When folded, the batter will have a "foamy" appearance. Don't overmix!

5. Fill muffin tins ¾ full. Bake for 20-25 mins in center of oven.

Mini muffins can be filled more than 3/4ths full. This is about 3 tbsp or so of batter per cup.

The finished muffins. They'll spring back when poked. Easy and yummy!

6. Cool for 10 mins, then remove from tins.

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