Sunday, September 19, 2010


What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, rose of Sharon, bird of paradise, buddleia, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, Heavenly Blue morning glories, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds; Virginia creeper beginning to turn red.

Outside the fences: Apache plume, leather-leaf globemallow, velvetweed, white and yellow evening primroses, datura, bindweed, scarlet creeper, ivy-leaf morning glory, stickleaf, white sweet clover, prostrate knotweed, toothed spurge, pigweed, ragweed, Russian thistle, chamisa, snakeweed, goat’s beard, spiny lettuce, horseweed, golden hairy asters, áñil del muerto, native sunflowers, goldenrod, gumweed, broom senecio, Tahokia daisy, purple and heath asters.

In my yard looking north: Nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum.

Looking east: Floribunda roses, hosta, hollyhock, winecup, sidalcea, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, Shirley poppy, scarlet flax, reseeded and Crimson Glory morning glories, garlic chives, zinnias, Maximilian sunflower; buds on tansy.

Looking south: Blaze, rugosa and miniature roses, sweet pea.

Looking west: Russian sage, caryopteris, catmint, lady bells, David phlox, perennial four o’clock, calamintha, lead wort, purple ice flower, purple coneflower, Mönch aster.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, sweet alyssum, tomatoes, peppers..

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, small geckos, bumble bee, wasps, black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Morning temperatures in the 40's; last rain 08/30/09; 12:18 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Dedicated gardeners are optimists blessed with conveniently selective memories.

My uphill neighbor put in a vegetable garden two years ago. Last year he didn’t bother because he remembered the quail had pecked, not eaten, but pecked all his tomatoes. This year, he was willing to try onions, but was still cautious, even though the birds had shifted their grounds early last summer. Alas, he remembers the wrong things.

In contrast, my friend in Pojoaque has complained all year about how poorly her tomatoes were doing. When I said at least this year was better than last, she looked at me like I lived in another universe. Last year was great, she said, but this year the nights had never gotten warm and tomatoes are tropical plants that need heat.

I mentioned those weeks in July that were so miserable because the nights never cooled off. I didn’t add I thought tomatoes came from the Andes and needed cool evenings. She replied, it never got above 60 on her porch and she’d checked.

I looked back at my notes. She was remembering May and June when morning temperatures were cooler than last year, in the 40's and low 50's. In fact, neither I nor my neighbors put our plants out until the end of May, at least two weeks later than usual.

However, I remembered the temperature inversions that began the middle of June just before forest fires fed on the heat and dry air in the Jemez. There were mornings in mid-July temperature didn’t fall below 66 on my porch and days that were in the 90's.

As often happens with disagreements between friends, we were both sort of right, and both a bit wrong. The tomato genus, Lycopersicum, did emerge in the Andes about 7 million years ago, and the modern species began to appear there less than a million years ago. One, cerasiforme, began spreading north into central America and México where it was domesticated, probably in modern Puebla or Veracruz. It had already hybridized with other species, contained the large- fruit fw2.2 gene, and developed an ability to fertilize itself when it migrated beyond the range of its pollinators.

Once the Spanish sent the domesticated esculentum descendants back to Europe, breeders there selected seeds to improve taste and increase size. In 1914, Bert Croft noticed a plant in his Florida field that formed a bush with terminal flowers that produced early fruit that ripened at one time. The recessive self-pruning gene has been exploited since to produce determinate plants for commercial harvesting.

Plants advertised as indeterminate continue to grow, bloom along the stem and produce fruit until they’re killed by frost.

Despite all the breeding efforts, most tomatoes still need nighttime temperatures above 55 to bloom and set fruit, like my friend believes. However, like I thought, many also fail to set when daytime temperatures get above 85. In addition, the tender perennials need humidity.

Memories are only tangentially tied to reality. My friend spent much of her life in Mississippi and Arkansas, where everything is warm and moist. Her earliest food memories are probably of determinate varieties that failed to produce if conditions were bad early in the season, but were cultivated anyway by home canners.

I grew up in cooler Michigan where the only tomatoes I ate came from grocers. In the early 1970's I tried growing cherry tomatoes in a pot in northern Ohio and found the skins so thick they were inedible. I remembered and didn’t try again.

Then, in 1995, we were invaded by grasshoppers. Another neighbor said the only things they hadn’t eaten in his yard were the tomatoes. I reasoned, since they were members of the nightshade family, maybe they were a deterrent. I went to the local hardware and bought all the plants they had. The only variety that survived was Patio Prize.

I figured my plants failed because it was late June when I bought them: they had suffered in the store and weren’t ready for the heat. The next year I bought more. I didn’t care if they bore fruit, only that they produced great quantities of smelly leaves. I had a little success with Early Girl and Sweet 100; the rest died.

I didn’t know Early Girl was introduced in 1975 at the insistence of Joe Howland, who wanted a tomato that would grow where he lived in Reno, Nevada, where daily temperatures range more than here. I also didn’t know modern cherry tomatoes got their impetus from two Israelis, Haim Rabinowich and Nachum Kedar, who were trying to find something that would live in their environment in the 1970's, about the time I gave up on them in Ohio.

All I knew or remembered was that Sweet 100 was the most successful in my yard. Unfortunately, I rarely can buy them: growers are forever looking for improvements, and their Supersweet 100, Sweet 1000, and Sweet Million stop growing in July and don’t resume with the monsoons.

I turned to chemical herbicides for the grasshoppers and abandoned the tomato bed to grass. When I tried placing bedding plants in what seemed a better location, they failed.

This year I found Sweet 100's again. I put two in the blue grama, and four in the other location. Only the ones in grass started blooming in August and now bear sun-warmed fruit I eat when I notice one the right shade of red.

My friend is already planning next year’s garden where the tomatoes will only grow in pots. Even though her "cherry tomatoes are doing good and taste good," her Early Girls "haven't done much, few fruit, what turned red was good."

Memories condition what we experience. For me, who never knew a garden tomato, the season lingers into Indian summer. For her, the nights are already too cold to do anything but forget.

Notes:Jenkins, J. A. "The Origin of the Cultivated Tomato," Economic Botany 2:379-392:1948.

Kalman, Matthew. "A Tiny Country’s Big Success with Tech Transfer," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 October 2008. Hebrew University licensed Rabinowich and Kedar’s genetic discoveries to two Israeli companies. One was purchased by Vilmorin, who often is associated with Sweet 100.

Nesbitt, T. Clint and Steven D. Tanksley. "Comparative Sequencing in the Genus Lycopersicon: Implications for the Evolution of Fruit Size in the Domestication of Cultivated Tomatoes," Genetics 162:365-379:2002.

Smith, Andrew F. The Tomato in America, 1994. Croft’s discovery was marketed by C. D. Cooper of Fort Lauderdale as Cooper Special.

Tracy, Dick. "Enduring Girl Short-Season Tomato Has Been Popular Since its '70s Debut," 6 June 1998. Early Girl was developed by Seminsis and licensed to PetoSeed who marketed it through Burpee. Pan American Seed’s owner bought Burpee in 1991 and itself was merged with Seminsis, which then was bought by Monsanto in 2005. Howland was on the boards of both Pan American and PetoSeed.

Photograph: Sweet 100 tomato, growing with blue grama grass, 12 September 2010.

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