- Author: Jan Rhoades
It's that time of year again, when seed catalogs show up in the mailbox and the evening activity becomes sitting by the fire dreaming and planning next year's garden. It is the next best thing to actually working in the garden. Anyway, there are always a multitude of pages devoted to tomatoes. So many to try, so little time. Such an amazing array of sizes, colors, growth habits and juicy flavor notes just make my mouth water. I always have to try a few new varieties along with the old standbys (not to mention the orphans I adopt). Needless to say, my garden will often sport a dozen tomato plants, so I become the neighborhood supplier. Sheesh!
This last season, I decided I had to plant the tomato named 'Mortgage Lifter.' Somehow the moniker and lore of that plant had turned into a kind of garden earworm—not to be confused with tomato worm. I am a little skeptical about large tomatoes, and I certainly don't buy into the hype that surrounds some of them. But, this one, I was willing to give a shot. After all, this is a Tomato With History.
Right off the bat, I will tell you that at this point in my gardening career, I buy tomato plants from a reputable seed company. I am too old to mess around with starting plants indoors. I order for a late May delivery and plant them deep in fertile soil. I usually put cutworm collars around the seedlings and use homemade tomato cages. So, last spring, along with a few others, my Mortgage Lifter was planted and I was wowed right away. It grew strong and sturdy and big! It was my first producer – even before my early bearing varieties, and the tomatoes were, indeed, sizeable! Most were about the size of softball and, I have to say, they gave meaty slices that, to me, tasted just the way I imagine a tomato should taste, especially in the depths of winter. They are certainly not in the same league as Cherokee Purples (sigh) – but they are definitely right up there. Finally, they pumped out pounds of yummy tomatoes all season, right up to the first frost. I was most certainly impressed – the hype is true!
So, on to the history. 'Mortgage Lifter' is one of the most famous heirloom tomatoes around. A few different stories exist relating how they were developed and who they were developed by. One source claims that the cultivar was developed by William Esther of Barboursville, West Virginia in 1922 and that Esther registered the name in 1932. However, the best-known and best-loved story involves M.C. Byles of Logan, West Virginia, who developed this tomato in the 1930's. He was known to all as "Radiator Charlie" because he ran a radiator repair business at his home, which was situated at the bottom of a steep hill. When logging or mining trucks laden with goods labored up the hill, their radiators often boiled over and they rolled back down to Charlie's house for repairs.
Mr. Byles had no formal education, having worked in the cotton fields since he was 4 years old; however, he loved to garden and grow vegetables, especially tomatoes. As it was the Depression, he worried about the mortgage on his house. He decided to develop a tomato that he could sell. He wanted a large, beefsteak type tomato, so he decided to crossbreed four of the largest-fruited tomatoes he could find. He chose a 'German Johnson' to plant, and in a circle around it, he planted 3 other varieties: another beefsteak, an Italian variety, and an English variety. He hand pollinated the 'German Johnson' with a baby's ear syringe, and after 6 years of trials, he had what he felt was a stable plant that produced large, tasty tomatoes. In a Living Earth interview with M.C. recorded in 1985, he says that he sold plants for $1.00 apiece (pretty pricey for Depression time) and that people came from as far away as 200 miles to buy the plants. In six years, he made enough money to pay off his $6,000 mortgage, so he called the tomato 'Mortgage Lifter,' but tomato-loving folks called it Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter.
Now if that story doesn't inspire you to give it a try, here are the particulars. 'Mortgage Lifter' is a fairly disease-resistant (VFN) Beefsteak type tomato. It is indeterminate and bears one to two pound fruit (Burpee says up to 4 pounds!). It is a very productive tomato, often described as pink or red, and is very meaty with few seeds and great tomato flavor. It is not unheard of for the plant to reach 9 feet! There is even one company called Beakman's that sells Mortgage Lifter Heirloom Tomato Pasta Sauce. And, just to maintain the spirit of this legendary plant, they have an annual small farmer's competition in which payment of the farm mortgage is the grand prize. Seeds and plants for this variety can be found at just about every gardening source.
Just remember, though his mortgage was paid off, there's just two things that money can't buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes.
A bit of an aside. If you love vegetable history and lore, I came across this book, Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, which won the Garden Writers' Association Gold Award in 2016. It includes information about selecting and growing heirloom tomatoes as well as some of his favorite heirloom tomato stories. The central message of the author, Craig LeHoullier, is “Heirlooms are living things, and, unless they are grown and saved and shared and relished, they'll go extinct.” LeHoullier co-leads a tomato-breeding project that has succeeded in putting 70 new compact growing varieties in various seed catalogs. This will be the topic of his next book, which he plans to self-publish in the fall. Each of the following companies carry seeds of all these varieties and some seeds of LeHoullier's full-size heirloom tomatoes.
- Victory Seeds
- The Tomato Growers Supply Company
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Sample Seed
- Johnny's Selected Seeds
- Seed Savers Exchange
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Catalog
Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest Catalog
- Author: Carmen Kappos
Lit candles, sparkle lights, pine boughs, flowers and festive plants; all things we may add to our homes as the days darken and we celebrate the holiday season. It is fun stuff but possibly dangerous too. The American Veterinary Medical Association cautions that “risky temptations” like these could be dangerous to pets. Small children could be affected as well.
Some flowers and festive plants that can be dangerous, poisonous, or just troublesome include amaryllis, mistletoe, pine, holly berries, balsam, cedar, lilies and daffodils. They are so beautiful at the holidays, just make sure they are out of reach of both pets and small children and collect any pieces that fall to the floor. Many plants we purchase may have also been treated with pesticides that can cause problems if eaten.
If you have a live tree don't add anything to the water as that can be dangerous to pets if they can manage to drink the water. It can also develop bacteria and mold that could make a pet ill.
Christmas trees can be an irresistible temptation to some cats who love to climb, shake, eat tinsel, break ornaments, well you get the idea; the Internet is full of cats & dogs creating their own fun with our decorations. If your furry friends tend towards holiday mayhem consider securing the tree to a post, doorway or the ceiling. Fishing line is strong and pretty unobtrusive for this task.
When you've gotten all your holiday chores done, food planned and decorations up; I hope you can also put up your feet for a bit. Wishing everyone a happy and safe holiday season!
In Case of Emergency:
- Poison Helpline: (800) 222-1222
- ASPCA Poison Control Helpline: (888) 426-4435
- Author: Jan Rhoades
Well, the cover crops are in, the garlic and onions are planted and mulched. Still eating raspberries, chard and kale, got some lettuce, and arugula, too. So, time to knuckle down and process that wheat. You might recall that I planted Hard Red Spring Wheat in my community garden plot. As an avid bread-baker, my hope was to experience the way our forefathers and foremothers would have had to produce wheat flour for bread. And, quite an experience it has been!
At first I wondered whether wheat could grow here at all. A little research around the production of wheat in the Owens Valley revealed some history worth knowing. Agriculture, as we well know, is always a tenuous undertaking in the Eastern Sierra, but determined ranchers and farmers worked hard to make the most out of the area's land, arid conditions, and seasonal water supplies. Resting on the edge of the Great Basin, the Owens Valley averages about 6-7 inches of precipitation a year, so irrigation was the key to virtually all aspects of farming and ranching in the region.
The year 1865 saw the first crop of wheat in the Owens Valley and, by 1867, 2,000 acres were devoted to growing wheat. In the next two years, that number doubled.
By 1900, 90% of the residents were involved in agriculture, and the Owens valley was considered a small but well established agricultural area in the early history of California. Much of this was stimulated by the numbers of mining camps in the region.
In 1910, the Owens Valley had 4,500 settlers. They grew apples, grapes, corn, wheat, potatoes, alfalfa, honey, sheep, horses, and cattle. One account relates that 51,000 bushels of wheat were produced that year, yielded by numerous grain fields.
Of course, that wheat had to be processed. In 1862 North Carolina native, Andrew Bell, built Bell's Mill near Independence. He supplied flour to Fort Independence. It was the first mill in the Owens Valley and served a vast area. Destroyed by a windstorm in 1923, its wooden ruins can be seen in Oak Creek Canyon, northwest of Independence, about a half a mile west of 395 near the fish hatchery. There is a plaque commemorating it there.
The water-powered Standard Flour Mill was located west of Bishop on Bishop Creek, near the present day SCE Plant 6. It was built by Joel Smith and Andy Cashbaugh, and owned by Harvey Russell. It was managed by John Blair and a Mr. Dugan. There were two other Mills in the area. One owned by the Jones Family of Round Valley, and the Sierra Flour Mill, located between Johnson Drive and the canal on East Line Street.
By 1889 California was second in the nation in wheat production. Eventually, however, land was given over to specialty crops that garnered more cash and required less work to get to market. Grain production became centered in the Midwest. In recent years, a small movement towards the revival of wheat growing in California has surfaced. In Kern and Santa Barbara counties, growers are responding to requests by artisan bakers, both amateur and professional, for heritage wheat and specialty grains. Robert Dedlow and Andrea Crawford of Kenter Canyon Farms in Ventura County are part of the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project. Begun in 2014 by Jon Hammond, of Linda Vista Ranch in Tehachapi and Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms in Tehachapi, their aim is to revive local grain production and more flavorful grain varieties. After all, the Mediterranean type climate in California is perfect for growing wheat.
Given that local mills are now a thing of the past, it was gratifying to hear that they have to ship their wheat to Lompoc for milling. After all, I am in the same predicament, and those guys are much bigger growers than I am.
There is no mill even remotely available to a small grower such as myself, so I am stuck with the story of The Little Red Hen to inspire me. You may recall that chick that couldn't get her friends to help plant the seeds, water the seeds, harvest the wheat, thresh it, winnow it and grind it into flour. So she carried on the work alone and baked the bread, enjoying a butter and jam feast all by herself. I am not sure how she accomplished that with wings for hands … ???
My approach was a little different. I researched the type of wheat that might do well in our climate and soil, and decided on 'Glenn' hard red spring wheat. That particular cultivar has all around disease resistance and a high protein content, which makes it an excellent bread flour. According to a study done by Cornell University and reported on in Science Daily, this wheat is especially good in sourdough baking. In California wheat growing trials, especially in the Bakersfield area, this strain of wheat did very well. The UC ANR small grain production manual relates that most wheat grown in California is hard red spring wheat. I have also heard from bread making friends that spring wheat makes lovely bread. So, seeds ordered, soil amended and let the planting begin. prepared my plot at the community garden (the same one I used to grow flint corn, you might recall) and planted around the beginning of March. It was pretty easy. Just rake the bed, broadcast the seed and cover with a mulch of straw – and, of course, water!
Okay – wheat was up in a week and grew vigorously. It did develop a sooty fungus on a few stalks – and, being a nervous first timer, I called the UC Davis Agronomy experts. The folks there assured me that I could pull the affected wheat out and the rest would be perfectly good. Sigh of relief.
By June, the heads were golden and, armed with a bit more Internet research, I was ready to ascertain the ripeness. Turns out I had to wait until the seed heads were mostly bent over. Finally, in early August it was ready to harvest – luckily my wheat field was small, so I just cut the stalks and put them in boxes and took them home! And then the fun began – I researched on line for a viable way to thresh and winnow the wheat – lots of opinions and entertaining You Tube videos – including one where a guy threshed with a chainsaw inside a trash can – I kid you not!
I tried a few threshing methods and settled on using the sledgehammer in a 5-gallon bucket. Works fine – and I don't have to go to the gym! An hour of threshing is a fine aerobic/weight training activity. I have yet to get to the winnowing and milling – though I did purchase a second hand electric stone mill that works like a charm – so, off I go. At least I know I will be working off any of the calories in the bread, when I finally get to bake it. Like I said, that storybook chicken is way ahead of me.
Oh well, wish me luck!
- Author: Alison Collin
Having spent best part of a week painstakingly trying to remove every scrap of Dichondra which has overrun a blueberry patch I am firmly of the opinion that it ranks with Bermuda grass as one of the most obnoxious weeds.
Dichondra micrantha was often planted as a lawn substitute until infestations of flea beetles proved devastating in some areas. It has small green leaves reminiscent of miniature water lily pads and spreads to make a dense mat by thread-like surface runners. It likes rich moist soil - just like blueberries.
We know not where the origination of this infestation began, but the blueberries were planted about seven years ago and have been mulched annually with a fairly thick top dressing of peat and fertilized using organic products. The first few strands of dichondra appeared about three years ago and grew quite rapidly, but it was fairly easy to remove from the soft peaty areas around the plant. However, this year the problem became much more serious, due mainly to lack of time to keep on top of it.
What to do? Blueberries hate to have their roots disturbed, so hoeing is not an option, neither would a selective weedkiller be safe, so there was nothing for it but to get down on ones hands and knees and try to undermine the mats of weed while taking great care not to move or damage the blueberry roots. The roots of the dichondra are very fragile, and tiny pieces easily broke off, and even with judicious use of my Japanese hand hoe, I was constantly aware of the fact that I was unearthing the blueberry roots.
When I had got the soil as clean as possible, I applied a layer of peat, and covered that with thick black landscape fabric cut to fit around the plants as best as the multi-stemmed growth would allow. Concerned that in our desert climate this might result in overheating of the blueberry roots, I then applied a thick layer of pine needles as a mulch.
Only time will tell if all this effort will pay off, but I know that we will have to be vigilant next season and pull out any dichondra as soon as it reappears from any area of the garden.
Has anyone else been able to manage such a weed in an effective and permanent way? If so we should love to hear from you!
- Author: Dustin Blakey
The Eastern Sierra is a challenging place to garden, but Chalfant stands out as a particularly difficult place to keep non-native plants happy. The wind is a problem, for sure, but most complaints Master Gardeners receive are related to the soil.
Soils in Chalfant developed in a shallow basin that collected material washed in from limestone and volcanic sources. While residents don't have to worry about their plants being calcium-deficient, they have a host of other issues to contend with.
Broadly speaking, almost all of Chalfant has alkaline soils. This means the pH is high: about 8.5 in most places. Most garden and landscape plants would prefer a soil pH of 6.5, about 100 times more acidic. The most common effect of alkaline soils is iron deficiency.
Soils may contain abundant amounts of iron, but as the pH increases, the plant is unable to use it. Conifers, hollies, and azaleas are commonly affected. If you have planted something prone to iron deficiency, you can apply iron as a short-term fix, but the real solution is to lower the pH. This is usually done by using sulfur. An old recommendation that came from my office years ago was to apply 9 pounds of elemental sulfur per 1,000 sq. ft. This should still be valid.
Fertilizers like 9-9-9 plus Iron that are available locally can also help.
Iron deficiency is common in Chalfant, but the far eastern part and the area west of Highway 6 but east of the drainage that runs through the west side is also high in salts—a double whammy! (See the area labeled 371 below.) Soils high in salt will burn foliage and stunt growth. Watering deeply can help push the salts below the root zone, but they seem to have a way of working their way back up.
On trees, the best course of action seems to be building an earthen berm around the tree and filling the basin with water to irrigate. (Do this when plants need water, not daily.) This helps to flush the salts down low. Daily shallow watering keeps trees alive, but I've seen many problems with this approach as the trees mature since the roots stay confined to the wet area. If you have a lawn, this is probably your only option, but for single, specimen trees or foundation plants (like those in a bed) you should try to keep the salt flushed down. Unfortunately, to do this requires extra irrigation.
Try to avoid using synthetic fertilizers in this area. Most fertilizers of these types are salts and will increase salinity. Instead use organic sources of fertilizer if possible as these are less prone to add more salinity. Assuming you can keep the critters under control, I've seen gardens do fine in this area with plenty of organic material and attention to watering.
For gardens, perhaps the best solution on the west side would be to build raised beds and fill them with topsoil and organic matter. Avoid the soil altogether!