Sunday, January 22, 2012

Around the Garden

Juxtapositions often make one stop and think – a pair of contrasting paintings in a museum, side by side, can be more than the sum of the parts. On Thursday, my thought-stimulators were a pair of speakers, separated by hours and miles, but both talking about plants.

Dr. Louis Magnarelli, Director of the CT Agricultural Experiment Station, spoke at the CT Tree Protective Association’s annual meeting on Thursday. One of his topics was the newly discovered Boxwood blight, which appears to have arrived in Connecticut via a shrub shipped here from England. To date, approximately 100,000 blighted nursery-grown boxwood shrubs have had to be destroyed in this state alone.

That evening, Tom Christopher, a nationally-known garden writer, spoke to members of the Middletown Garden Club and their guests at deKoven House. Exhorting gardeners to exercise sustainable practices, Tom described how he had had little luck growing tomatoes until he researched and bought tomato seeds appropriate for a short growing season.

Even as I nodded my head, regretting my 20 years wasted trying to grow tomatoes (average yield – two per plant), I suddenly thought back to that nasty Boxwood blight. And I thought about the Hemlock woolly adelgid, which arrived in the U.S. aboard an imported Japanese hemlock tree. Or the Chestnut blight, which wiped out several billion chestnut trees after arriving in New York with a shipment of Asian chestnut trees.

While Tom’s point was that buying seeds and growing your own tomatoes lets you select from the huge array of plants that may be better equipped to grow in your yard than the three or four varieties sold at the local nursery, there’s a lot more sustainability in that choice. First, you are buying something that costs almost nothing to ship and which has scarcely any carbon footprint.

The plant you grow from those seeds can be coddled (or not) in your own seed starting location, without the pesticides a grower would normally apply repeatedly until the plant is ready to ship. Packing materials for seeds usually consist of a paper envelope, so no new plastic pots are needed. You will most likely recycle pots from your own collection (or if you need recycled pots, just call me!)

But by far the best reason for growing from seed is avoidance of diseases and pests. While it is possible to get seed contaminated with bacteria or viruses, those are usually only of concern if you are eating the sprouts, as in the recent broccoli sprout scare in Germany.

Two years ago, the tomato crop in Connecticut was mostly wiped out by Late Blight, a nasty soil-borne fungus that arrived here in tomato plants sold at a big box store. As many of us try very hard to eat produce grown locally, a disease such as Late Blight also devastates the local farmers who want to satisfy that market.

Growing plants from seed also improves the diversity of our gardens. Instead of growing monocultures of one or two varieties of a species, we can grow enough variety to deter pests and diseases. The Irish Potato Famine should have been instructive in this area: although dozens of varieties of potatoes were grown in their native Central America, the popular food staple in Ireland consisted of just one variety, which was repeatedly cloned through the practice of saving seed potatoes for replanting the following year. This lack of genetic diversity exacerbated the effects of the introduced Phytophthora blight, and led to death by starvation for millions of poor Irish farmers.

The international movement to save seed is an important effort, one we may all depend on if things go awry with the genetically-modified seed industry. If your mailbox isn’t bursting with seed catalogs at the moment, check out the Seed Savers Exchange website for glorious inspiration. Seven kinds of beets, 42 different beans, nineteen eggplants – including Red Ruffled, aka Hmong Red – what could be more fun than making all those choices?

And remember that growing from seed needn’t be limited to vegetables – my current project involves a bunch of beech tree seeds. I’ll be reporting on their progress over the weeks to come.

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