Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Talking Tomatoes on Central Texas Gardener

Why Do You Hate These Flowers?

Late winter/early spring in Central Texas brings forth the beautiful bounty of the dandelion. Every year, garden centers are flooded with folks who are bound and determined to eradicate these weeds from their lawns. For decades, I have been part of the system that pushes herbicides, both pre and post emergent, to aid in this endeavor. Now I find my rebel self asking, "why?"

Through one of the most proficient marketing strategies known to man, rivaling that of the genius De Beers diamond campaign, the idea of a mono-crop culture of a single, non-native green space has become our norm. We dump billions of dollars and tons of harmful chemicals into keeping our little squares of lawn. We waste water at an obscene rate and profoundly damage our vital pollinator populations in this quest. Again- why?

I get it; who doesn't like to have a neat looking yard? Our HOA's (a soapbox I will save for another day) require it. We envision our kids running barefoot through the sprinkler and our Labradors bounding gleefully, ball in mouth, across our green spaces.
What if I told you that you could have that, minus the chemicals, Herculean effort, and money pit if we just change our mindsets a little bit? Consider the hubris of thinking we need, or can even achieve, this much control over nature. We can not. We should not. The cost is far too high.

What about the emergence of dandelions triggers our disgust? They are the first source of food for our populations of critically important pollinators. They don't have painful sticker seed heads. They are just little yellow flowers in our lawn. Do you remember picking them and holding them under your chin to make your face glow? Do you remember plucking the airy, magical seed heads and blowing a wish into the wind? Find that feeling and hold onto it as you read. Remember a time when nature was inspiring and magical. When did we trade that for a doggedly determined desire to bend nature to our will?

I would argue that that spirit was squashed through the brilliant marketing of the chemicals required to achieve a mono-crop, nonnative green-space; the current American Lawn. Having a hybrid St Augustine lawn (or Bermuda, Zoysia, fill in the blank) is not going to work without spending money. Chemical companies like it when we spend money, so millions of dollars go into advertising every year to make sure we do just that to keep our green squares free of yellow flowers.

You want a green lawn space. So do I. But perhaps we can redefine what that looks like and save money, time, water resources, our pollinators, our aquatic life, and eliminate the toxic chemicals? This can be achieved, and it does not mean you rip up your lawn and replace it with rocks.

Start with adjusting your expectations. Why do you need a single crop of non-native grass? You don't. By having a lawn that is comprised of native turf species, you can have your lush green space without the bad stuff. For Central Texas, I love Thunder Turf, a blend of native grasses from Native American Seed. It is beautiful, super low maintenance, and requires little, if any, supplemental water, unlike thirsty non-native grasses. By just replacing your grass with turf like this, you are doing better all around, right out of the gate.

Resist the temptation to go to Defcon 1 if you see a dandelion. So what if you have a crop of them spring up? Let them make flowers, enjoy them, let the bees enjoy them, then mow them down when the rest of the grass is awake and growing. I know this idea is a little radical, but I am not known as a horticultural rebel for falling in line with the protocols that the big chemical companies push. If you see some broad-leaf weeds pop up, chill.

Use an organic pre-emergent like corn gluten, early in the spring and again in the fall to keep a handle on weeds. If you do this, and do it at the right time, you can keep weeds at bay without the high toxicity of the weed and feed chemicals. Do not use those. Please. There is nothing horticulturaly correct about those products. Sure, knocking out weeds and feeding the grass in one bag sounds nice, but all you are doing is killing the existing weeds, the ones that you see on the day of application, and feeding your lawn with a synthetic fertilizer at the wrong time of year. The broad-leaf herbicides in those product kill trees. It does not happen over night- it can take years for an established tree to show damage, but eventually, it will. For newly planted trees, the damage can manifest much more quickly. The synthetic fertilizer is like a shot in the arm. You may see a quick greening, but it is in and out of the soil in a week or two, depending on the temperature. The use of these products is so ingrained in our psyche that even seasoned nursery professionals still recommend them. I sure did. I sold tons, literally tons, one 40# bag at a time. I was wrong.

If you are fighting sticker burs- this is Texas, and they are awful- try the pre-emergent approach. Try a mechanical method to rid yourself of them. You can drag carpet over the yard and pick up many of the seeds. If you are vigilant, eventually you will get a handle on them.

And never, ever, ever use herbicides of any kind if you are near water or if your lawn is above water, like on a hill that leads down to a river or lake. They are so incredibly toxic to aquatic life, and our water systems are already struggling.

Establish a native species lawn. Use organic lawn fertilizer and make sure you include microbiology. Water mindfully. Do not over water just because your sprinkler guy said to set it at 15 min a day every day at 4 in the morning so no one sees you do it. Make informed decisions about the products you use without buying into the idea that you need to spread chemicals because the big sign at the Box Store says so. And, most importantly, breathe. If you see a pretty yellow flower poke its head up in February, say, "Hello, there, little guy. Welcome. Feed the bees."

Tomato Selection for Central Texas and Rules for Anywhere Else

I have found that many failed attempts at growing tomatoes stem from selecting a variety that is not well suited to your climate. So, how can we select the best ones? Our selections when we are perusing seed catalogs or picking robust transplants at the local independent garden center will ultimately set us up for success.   

I love heirlooms. I love newer hybrids, as well. I like an old time, tried and true, if it ain't broke- don't fix it variety as much as I appreciate newer cultivars that have their own disease and pest resistance and proclivity towards successful growth in the environment they were bred for. Choose what is right for you. I'm a Rebel- I'm not going to judge! 

At Lake Austin Spa Resort, where I am the Flora and Fauna Manager, I have worked with Richard Martin, who is the Culinary Gardener, to curate a collection of about 25 varieties to grow for our Chef, Stephane Beaucamp, to incorporate in his menus and for our world-class guest chefs to use in their dishes. Needless to say, we had to take a great deal of information into consideration when we made our picks.

Consider your specific climate. Is it hot and dry? Hot and Humid? Cool in the spring with a mild summer? Start by selecting tomatoes that are heirlooms form a similar climate or new cultivars developed for an environment like yours. If you are in Central Texas, a Siberian tomato variety is not going to work well, I don't care how many ice cold sweet-tea's you bring it. Look for varieties that come from places like Sicily, Iraq, Spain. Seek cultivars that were developed in similar areas for your specific climate. I like to look at reviews- when I shop for heirloom, I love Barker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They have a kick-ass printed catalog and a fantastic online catalog, as well. The online version has reviews. If somebody in an area similar to mine highly rates a tomato, I can infer it will grow well here. If someone in Northern Michigan has great success but notes it is heat sensitive- no way will it make it past March in Texas. "Will this tomato grow in my region?" is the most important question- all of the cool qualities are secondary. 

Next, and this is the fun part, pick the characteristics that you desire in your tomatoes. Size matters! Do you want itty-bitty cherry tomatoes or ginormous whopping Stare Fair winners? What color? You can find everything from white to black. Orange, purple, blue, pink- there is every color you can want. Some are highly acidic, some are sweeter. Some are determinate, basically meaning they put on the whole crop at once, some are indeterminate, which means they put on a little at a time all season long. If you want to make salsa or sauces, determinate is your choice. If you want tomatoes on your plate all season, go for indeterminate. 

For our purposes at Lake Austin Spa Resort, I needed all of the above. I am gifted with abundant space and supplies, so I can have 25+ varieties of tomatoes, which makes me feel like a pampered Tomato Princess. I am abundantly blessed. Here are some of the varieties I chose, and why:

Cherokee Purple: this tomato consistently works in Central Texas and is both beautiful and delicious. If you only pick one, this one should be on the top of the list.

Mushroom Basket: an Italian type heirloom with gorgeous lobed fruit. This one can get BIG. if you want an impressive, tasty slicer, this is a great choice. 

Abu Rawan: this is an Iraqi heirloom and boy does it perform in the heat. When all other tomatoes are shriveling in the July and August sun, this one keeps cranking out fruit.

Brad's Atomic Grape: who doesn't love a grape sized tomato that is purple, yellow, red, and orange? 

Indigo Sun: I have grown this for the last four years, and it never fails to impress me. No matter how stressed it gets, it keeps banging out tomatoes. I suggest popping them in your mouth, whole, straight off the vine, warm from the afternoon sun.

Reisetomate: it is German, so will it work here? Maybe not, but it looks really cool. Remember- I'm a Rebel Horticulturist, so sometimes I need to break the rules, even if I made them! I hope this one works, it is super weird. 

Other varieties that I have chosen for this season are:
Blue Berries
Mortgage Lifter
Pantano Romanesco
Dad's Sunset
White Tomesol
Dark Galaxy
Wagner Blue Green
Black Beauty
Costoluto Genovese
Yellow Pear
Lucid Gem
Solar Flair
Purple Bumblebee

I hope you have a fantastic time selecting your tomatoes! Be sure to check in with your Independent Garden Center for the best stock and selection, as well as pro advice for your area. 

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