- 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: 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: Sarah Sheehan
Set in the middle of an elder community in Bishop, the Sunrise Garden has flourished for seven years providing information to Inyo-Mono Counties Master Gardeners and delectable bounty for its residents.
So far this season, the six varieties of tomatoes grown both in sun and shade are yielding impressive numbers. The tomatoes are counted and weighed as well as notated for their size, color, shape, flaws and flavors twice a week. The varieties this year are: Better Boy, Big Beef, Carmello, Champion II, Early Girl and Jetsetter. On August 29th we picked more than 44 lbs of tomatoes which we donated to the residents.
While tending the garden a careful watch is made for any evidence of pests or decline. To this end, the watering system is regularly checked, plants are water sprayed from below to dislodge pests and their cages shaken to rid them of excess water.
Green bell peppers are also grown in sun and shade and they too are thriving with 18 inch plants having as many as 24 peppers. So our task is to thin and cheer these green jewels on. The only issue we have had thus far is a little sunburn as it has been an unusually warm summer in the Eastern Sierra.
These tomatoes are grown in two other sites around Bishop and it has been noted that the same tomato variety has a slightly different taste dependent on which location it was grown. At the end of season we will be posting our results.
The tomato gang: Carolyn Lynch, Joan Nash, Marti Holton, Sarah Sheehan, and Denyse Racine.
- Author: Alison Collin
With Memorial Day fast approaching my thoughts have turned to poppies because a paper Red Flanders Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is often worn to remember and honor those who have fought for their country. In many parts of Europe the plants are still to be found growing in cornfields and along byways in large masses and, although in some places they have been declared an agricultural weed, most people secretly love them.
The poppy family, Papaveracae contains 25 genera, and over 100 species which generally emanate from the temperate latitudes. Many have wonderfully flamboyant flowers such as the well-known California poppy, (Eschscholzia california) with its saturated orange flowers which clothe many dry hillsides of the state in spring, to the exquisite sky blue Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) which is tricky to grow at the best of times and would hate the dry atmosphere in the Owens Valley.
However there are many garden varieties of poppies which are easy to grow here and it is hard not to love their vibrant crepe petals.
California Poppies now come in a wide range of colors such as pale cream (White Linen), burnt orange (Mikado), yellow (Chrome Queen), and purple (purple gleam). They are perennials but can be grown as annuals where there is a long season. They have a long taproot and resent any attempts to transplant them, so the seed needs to be sown where they are to grow. Water to keep moist until germination has occurred after which occasional watering should suffice, although they will flower for a longer season if given a more regular supply.
Shirley Poppies (P. rhoeas) are annuals and do well here if sown in the fall to will bloom in the spring. They grow about 3 feet tall and about 1 foot wide, and come in a variety of colors apart from the original red – white, pink, salmon, and lilac, sometime with a contrasting white edge. Bees love them for their early supply of pollen, and I have often witnessed them almost fighting around the anthers.
Oriental Poppies (P. orientale). These perennials are perhaps the most striking with huge flowers held on strong stems in late spring or early summer. They grow a clump of hairy leaves early in the year before the flower stems develop. Large clumps of flowers each up to 7 inches in shades of scarlet, white, coral or pink with a large black blotch at the base of the each petal can make a spectacular show in May, after which the foliage dies down in the summer in response to hot weather. They are also loved by bees for their black pollen. Unfortunately the roots are also irresistible to gophers!
Papaver soniferum, an annual variety that has been in cultivation for hundreds of years, comes in a wide range of colors and forms. I love the original single violet flowers which have darker splotches at the base of the petals but now they also come in double varieties (which are not attractive to bees and can look rather like a mop head), and fringed versions. The colors range from very pale pinks to almost black. Unlike a lot of other poppies the leaves are grayish-green, and smooth.
A plant that has done exceptionally well in my high desert garden is P. atlanticum. This is a smaller poppy which produces a prolific crop of soft orange semi-double flowers and which arise from a clump of perennial foliage. It has a very long blooming season if it is regularly deadheaded. It is difficult to transplant, but volunteers readily and comes through our winters with ease. The large black native carpenter bees are particularly attracted to this flower and look ridiculous as they try to collect food from these delicate flowers.
In the deserts the native prickly poppy, Argemone intermedia, is just coming into bloom. An annual or biennial, it has large crinkly white flowers the delicacy of which belies the prickly plant's tough nature, so unless you have an area given over to plants that like dry rocky terrain, you probably would not want to plant this in your garden. It is much loved by insects of all sorts.
Another native plant with similar flowers and no prickles is the shrubby Romneya coulteri the blooms of which look like fried eggs with their crepe-papery petals surrounding a boss of golden stamens. It is native to the Californian coastal regions, and is probably borderline hardy in the Owens Valley but I have seen a spectacular hedge of them growing in West Bishop. They are quite tricky to get established since they require fire for the seeds to germinate, and have rubbery roots that do not hold a ball of soil well for transplanting. The best method is to find a rooted sucker and try transplanting that. However, once established in ideal conditions these plants can spread rapidly and reach 6ft-8ft.
There are many more types of poppies, both native and cultivated and seeds of these available, both from suppliers of native plant seeds and catalogs such as www.edenbrothers.com/PoppySeeds that specialize in garden varieties.
It is hard to find flowers that give so much reward for so little effort.
- Author: Jan Rhodes
A Pretty Corny Story
Ahhhh...summer! Homegrown tomatoes, juicy watermelon and fresh corn on the cob. At least that's what comes to mind, especially in these chilly, late winter days. Many of you know the joy of backyard gardening that includes picking ripe ears of sweet corn, shucking them right there and popping them into boiling water. Along with sliced tomatoes, fresh basil and green beans from the garden, that is what I call “Summer Dinner.” Lucky as I am to have a sizeable backyard garden, I have always grown a good harvest of delicious sweet corn to enjoy in those dog days of August. Last year, however, I had a new adventure with field corn.
Last summer, my interest turned to growing corn that could be dried and ground into cornmeal or polenta, made into masa for tortillas or tamales, or even popped! A friend mentioned specialty grains and flours made by Anson Mills, and passed me a book that featured the story of how this business grew (The Third Plate by Dan Barber ). In his search for the heritage grains of his childhood, Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, re-discovered Floriani Red Flint Corn and sang its praises. So much so, that, being a good foodie, I had to order the polenta that Anson Mills makes from this corn. Of course, it was more than delicious – so much better that what can be purchased locally. And, though I enjoy cooked polenta, I adore it baked into sourdough rye bread. The Anson Mills Polenta didn't disappoint in that department, either. I decided then, and there, that I would try my hand at growing this special corn. After all, I have always maintained that gardening is just a big science experiment.
Not wanting to use my precious sweet corn space, I decided to procure a plot at the community garden. This was a great choice for a number of reasons. For one, there would be no danger of cross pollination with sweet corn, since very little is grown there. Also, there is plenty of sun there, no difficult shady spaces. Finally, it was really fun to visit the garden regularly and see what everyone else was growing and how it was doing.
I had to look around a bit to order my seeds. It seems there are not many sources for this increasingly popular variety. I finally found some at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I had never looked at their website before to order seeds as they are in Virginia. However, they have an impressive array of organic and heirloom vegetable, herb, and flower seeds, dedicated to “saving the past for the future.” They have several pages featuring dent, flint and flour corn. I never realized there was a difference! My Floriani Red Flint would take 100 days to grow 10 feet tall or more. The online catalog described it as a beautiful medium to deep red kernal that is slightly pointed, provides cornmeal with a pink cast, and makes polenta with a remarkably rich and complex flavor. Just what I was looking for!
After a bit of research on planting practices and care, I prepared my plot and was able to put seeds in the ground around mid-June. I planted the same way I usually do for sweet corn. Lots of amendment as corn is a heavy feeder, rows three feet apart, two seeds in a hole to fool the birds. I planted in furrows and hilled up to prevent lodging (blowing down) and provide mini-canals for irrigation. When the plants emerged, I thinned to about 12 inches. I watered almost daily at first, then every other day, and withheld water for the weeks of drying on the stalk. I also added bloodmeal when the corn was 6 inches high and 12 inches high. The amazing part was how tall the plants grew, some were probably more that 10 feet! The tricky part was deciding when to harvest. With field corn, it is necessary to allow the ears to mature and dry on the stalk. I checked weekly when it looked like the corn was nearing readiness, and finally harvested the ears in early October. I shucked the ears and let them dry a bit more in net bags in my garage. Finally, one sunny day in November, I sat on the patio and laboriously removed the kernals from the ears (that's another story).
As for my next project (you knew this was coming), I put in a cover crop of red clover, both in my backyard garden and in my community plot. The plan is to plant hard red spring wheat. I have the seeds and am reading up on harvesting, threshing and winnowing. Perfect for these long winter nights.