Thursday, July 28, 2011

My First Gray Treefrog

I have a new herp to add to the list of ones I've seen here. Yesterday was watering day, and when I went out there after dark to turn off the soaker hose, I saw this cute little guy sitting on the coiled hose. I only managed to get one good picture of him since it was dark out there and I had to use the flash.

This is Hyla versicolor, the gray treefrog. I'm pretty sure that's what it is anyway. The interesting thing about these guys is that they're tetraploid, which is common in plants but much less common in animals. He has four sets of chromosomes instead of two.

It turns out I hear these guys all the time, but I've never seen one. Here's a YouTube video of one singing so you know what I've been hearing.

Speaking of treefrogs, there also used to be a green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) that lived in my future in-law's garden. I didn't know what they sounded like until I started looking up treefrog calls, but now I know they were the funny noises I heard one night coming from the San Marcos River.

For some reason I find their calls really funny sounding. "bep... bep... bep... bep..."

So yeah, we've got at least two treefrog species here, to add to my list of anurans along with the Gulf Coast Toads, Cliff Chirping Frogs, Leopard Frogs, and Cricket Frogs. I hope they're signs of a healthy ecosystem.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Botany of Desire

I read Michael Pollan's later book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, a while back, so I snatched this one up when I saw it on display at the city library last time I was there. I was looking forward to reading a history of agriculture and plant domestication, but I was surprised to find out that this is a good book for any gardener to read. Michael Pollan makes it clear from the beginning he is One Of Us, and this book was inspired by his own time in the garden growing the plants he features.

Pollan covers how four plants, a fruit (the apple), a flower (the tulip), an entheogen (cannabis), and a staple crop (the potato) evolved to fulfill our desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. He decided on those four to represent each category because they have especially interesting biographies. The main thesis of the book is how our domesticated plants have changed us as much as we've changed them, something I'd heard before with regard to domestic animals. These are the dogs, cats, horses, and cattle of the plant kingdom. He tells the story of how each of these plants were domesticated and have used Homo sapiens to spread their genes over the world, from Johnny Appleseed, to Dutch tulip growers, to Americans growing cannabis under lights in hidden sheds, to Monsanto's genetic engineers.

I am certainly under no illusion that my garden is actually under my control. At best, my plants and I are partners, but believe me, I often feel more like their servant, especially lately toiling under the 100+ degree heat. I don't know, maybe it's because I'm a cat person too. My cats never fail to remind me who exactly domesticated who in this relationship.

There was a lot in this book I hadn't heard of before. I didn't know what an odd character Johnny Appleseed was, having only really known the Disney version of him. I had heard the warnings that marijuana has gotten much stronger in recent years, but Pollan explains how that's because of the escalation of the drug war encouraging recent breeding efforts to make a more compact, efficient plant that can be grown in very confined spaces. The chapter on the modern potato was the most disturbing part of the book for me, and has made me reluctant to eat a conventionally grown potato ever again. Though I'm still afraid that I agree with Pollan that tulips are boring, and still don't really understand the Dutch obsession with them.

The thing that made this book fun to read for me is that Pollan is my kind of gardener. I really liked his story about how he tried grow some marijuana back in the 80's, not because he particularly liked to smoke it, but just to see if he could. He said any gardener reading this should understand, and that does sound like something I would do. I haven't tried to grow marijuana, but I have tried to grow Salvia divinorum twice, which is a not-yet-illegal magic plant. It just sounded like an interesting plant and I wanted to see if I could grow it. My efforts only convinced me that it would be silly to outlaw this plant, because unlike cannabis, S. divinorum is so hard to grow that we need not worry about a bunch of kids growing it in their closets!

Marijuana sounds like it's even more interesting to grow now than it was back in the 80's, with all the new varieties that have been developed, mostly from hybridizing the long-ago domesticated Cannabis sativa with it's cousin Cannabis indica. Modern marijuana growers go on about how such-and such variety is very relaxing to smoke, while such-and-such other variety enhances creativity, and such-and-such other variety is very good a pain relief. It sounds just like diehard heirloom tomato or chile pepper grows talking about which varieties are best for what purpose, this one is good for sauce, while that one is good for drying, etc. It actually sounds to me like modern marijuana varieties aren't more dangerous than the stuff was in the 60's, just more refined. Now we've got marijuana connoisseurs, which makes it seem even stranger that as far as drugs go, marijuana is treated by the law to be on par with cocaine and heroin rather than wine or tobacco. I don't think there are any heroin connoisseurs.

This book also made me regret that apples don't generally grow well in Texas, though after reading Pollan's description of the amazing diversity of wild, seed-grown apple trees, I wonder if people just haven't bothered with trying to breed apple trees for Texas, or even if there used to be varieties that would grow here that have gone extinct. I had no idea what an odd character Johnny Appleseed was, or how most apples grown for seed aren't good for much else than cider, giving a rather different spin on his whole story. Disney makes it sound like he was spreading nutritious, high fiber snacks around, when really he was an American Dionysus helping people get drunk!

Another theme I liked in this book was how plant domestication is a delicate balance between the control and order of Apollo with wild and unpredictable Dionysus. Dionysus is certainly underappreciated in today's modern industrial agriculture, though genetic engineering, it turns out, is a lot more of a crapshoot than I thought it was. They like to give the image of scientists carefully inserting genes precicely into chromosomes, but in turns out that one popular technique is literally shooting DNA-coated bullets into plants with a .22 and hoping some make their way into the chromosomes. Reading this book has only made me more of the opinion that genetic engineering is not that great. I try to keep an open, scientific mind, but it still seems like, at best, genetic engineering isn't that much better than conventional plant breeding. At worst it could have all sorts of unintended ecological consequences. And yeah, I resent Monsanto for basically breeding Bt resistant insects for profit and ruining that relatively safe organic insecticide for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, the description of conventionally grown non-GMO potatoes was just as scary as the story of the NewLeaf potatoes that are considered by the FDA to be an insecticide themselves. One potato farmer told Pollan that he doesn't like to actually eat the potatoes he grows for a living, and instead grows a small plot of organic potatoes for his own use. I wonder if he regrets being that open. It certainly makes me think twice about eating conventional potatoes if the actual farmers growing them are afraid to eat them, and afraid to even step out into the poisoned fields.

After taking a year off of potato growing, this book has inspired me to try again to plant a big crop of them next year. Growing the other crops mentioned in the book isn't feasable for me right now, since I don't have the room for apple trees, I'd rather not be thrown in jail for growing pot, and I'm just not interested in growing useless tulips, so potatoes it is! At least now I know that one of the reasons my potatoes didn't do so well last time is because they need a lot of nitrogen. I'll put plenty of manure in their beds next time around. I even got some actual potato seeds in my last seed trade (not seed potatoes, but potato seeds) that I'd like to experiment with. Like apples, potatoes don't come true from seed, but seed is how you get new genetic combinations for new varieties. Maybe I'll get lucky and get a potato plant that actually likes to grow in Texas! I know, it's a crapshoot, but that's how evolution works.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

2011 Tomato Reviews

As you can see, the first half of this year has been rough. The only thing I got a decent harvest out of was the tomatoes. I didn't get enough to can a batch of sauce or salsa, but I did get enough for fresh eating and a few extra to throw in the dehydrator. It was still an interesting trial to see which ones did best in very hot, dry conditions.

Bloody Butcher

Transplant Date: March 10
First Harvest Date: June 1

Looks: This tomato is a weird size. It's too big to be a cherry tomato, and too small to make good sandwich slices. It's about golf ball sized. I quartered them and used them in salads. They're perfectly round and red.

Taste: Not that great, to be honest. Very sour, without much sweetness or complex flavors. The skin was kind of tough too.

Growth: This was supposed to be an early tomato, but I actually got my first ripe one after I had already picked some Cherokee Purples. The plants themselves were ok but seemed slightly less robust than my other varieties. The yield didn't seem that good either.

Grow again?: No. I don't really see the point of growing this one again once I run out of seeds. It doesn't seem to have any stand-out qualities, either in earliness, flavor, or yield. Maybe it doesn't like the climate here. It was also the first one to die once things got really hot.

Cherokee Purple

Transplant Date: March 10
First Harvest Date: May 30

Looks: Not your standard looking tomato, that's for sure. Mine are purple with green shoulders, and kind of a striped appearance. Lots of cracking on top. Uneven sizes and shapes, though most are of a good sandwich size.

Taste: One of the best tomatoes I've ever tasted! Nice and sweet, but also a lot of savory flavor and just the right amount of sour. These tomatoes don't even really need salt to taste awesome. I ate a lot of BLT's this summer with Cherokee Purple tomatoes. They're also great on burgers. About the only complaint I have about them is that they have such a meaty flavor that in some applications they can overpower things. They were ok in fritattas, but didn't seem to go that well with the delicate eggs and cheese. A more fruity flavored tomato would probably be better for that, while Cherokee Purple should stick with the heartier dishes.

Growth: Weirdly enough, this was my earliest tomato, by a little bit. It wasn't supposed to be. It's supposed to be a later variety, at least according to most seed catalogs. It must depend on the climate. Cherokee Purple is a popular variety around here. My CSA farmer also grows them, and I see them a lot at the Farmer's Market. They seem to love heat. My plants were large and robust, and weren't only the first ones to produce tomatoes, but also the highest yielders and the last ones to die in the heat.

Grow again?: For sure! Those Cherokees knew what they were doing when they bred this tomato. I'm tempted to grow it every year, even though there are so many other tomato varieties to try.

Mini Orange

Transplant Date: March 25
First Harvest Date: June 5

Looks: A large yellow or light orange cherry tomato. Too large to be bite-sized. I had to halve them for salads.

Taste: Really bland. Almost as bad as Yellow Pear. They weren't sour or sweet or much of anything. My search for a good tasting yellow tomato continues.

Growth: Not that great. I don't think they did well in the drought this year. They didn't do much better than Bloody Butcher. Low yields and quick to die in the summer heat. Then again, they got planted a bit later than my other tomatoes.

Grow again?: No. I planted all the seeds I had and didn't bother saving any more. The flavor just didn't impress me. There are so many other great tasting tomatoes out there, that I don't feel the need to bother with one that tasted so bland. The drought should have concentrated the flavors of all my tomatoes, so if they taste this bland during a drought, during a wet year they'll probably be even worse.

Rio Grande

Transplant Date: March 11
First Harvest Date: June 2

Looks: A red paste tomato about the size and shape of an egg, maybe a little larger...

... and as you can see above, nice meaty interior with few seeds.

Taste: Just fine for a paste tomato. To be honest, I didn't eat a lot of these fresh. Most of them went into the dehydrator. I'm a little more lenient with paste tomato flavor, since they're not meant to be eaten fresh anyway. The important thing is for them to have high yields, thick and easy to peel skin, and to have fairly dry flesh without much gel or seeds. This tomato seemed to do well for all of those things.

Growth: Not bad, considering the conditions. Like most paste tomatoes, Rio Grande is a determinant. Last year's paste tomato was Hawkins Plum, and Rio Grande did much better than Hawkins Plum did last year. One notable thing was that RG had no Blossom End Rot! Last year I lost about half my HP fruit to BER, but this year, under much worse weather conditions, RG had no BER at all. I'm sure that if they would have gotten more water this year, I would have had enough Rio Grande tomatoes to can some sauce.

Grow again?: Yes. I saved seeds from this variety and plan on growing it again. I think this has a lot of potential to be a good canning tomato during a year with better weather.

Oh, and if you remember which tomatoes I said I planted this spring, you may be wondering what happened to Arkansas Traveller. I think I planted them out too late. They never managed to set fruit before I had to quit watering the tomatoes due to the water restrictions. I still have plenty more seeds left, so I'll give them another chance next year. It's not really fair to compare them to tomato varieties I planted out much earlier than them. I've heard a lot of good things about AT's performance in hot climates, so I look forward to giving them a fair chance next year.

Fall Tomatoes

This year I am also growing fall tomatoes as an experiment. To be fair, I only planted varieties I already grew this spring, to see how they do in the fall. I planted the rest of my original Rio Grande seeds, but only one plant came up (good thing I already saved seeds). I also planted some more Bloody Butcher tomatoes (trying to use those seeds up) and Cherokee Purple and have several plants of each of those. I'll let you know how they do. Who knows, maybe Bloody Butcher will redeem itself as a fall crop.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Thunder Moon

The Phoenix Moon Grove named this moon the Crepe Myrtle Moon, which is my least favorite of their moon names. Yes, I admit it, I'm a bit of a native plant snob. To me, native plants are like local mom and pop shops and restaurants, while non-native plants that people plant all over the place are like the McDonald's and Wal-Marts of landscaping. The common crepe myrtle is native to China, and while it's not nearly as invasive as some other non-native landscape plants such as Nandina, Privet, Chinese tallow, and Chinaberry, it seems wrong to me to come up with a Texas-specific full moon naming scheme with one of your moons named after a non-native plant.

Until I can think of a better name for this moon, I'm going with one of the traditional moon names for right now. Especially since Sunday we had a little thunderstorm! Too bad it didn't last long, so it didn't get a chance to really soak the ground, but it did fill up the rain barrels.

We're still in exceptional drought and Stage 3 water restrictions, so I can only water once a week with a soaker hose. I don't have enough hose to cover the whole garden, so I had to make some hard decisions on which plants to keep alive and which to let go.

Here's a picture to show you just how BROWN my whole yard is. One thing that annoys me is whenever they have a story on the local news about the water restrictions, they have someone on there reassuring us that it's fine to let your grass go brown, and as soon as it rains again it will come back. Yeah, who says that I'm worried about the grass? I never water my grass!
One of the crops I'm trying to carry through the summer are the California Wonder bell pepper plants I got from my CSA farmer. I don't expect to get any fruit until it starts to cool down in fall, but so far the plants themselves are healthy and might survive that long with their once-a-week watering.

The tomatillos are in the same situation. No fruit, but maybe I can get some later if I keep them alive.
I've got one Malabar spinach plant still alive, even though it's still very small.
One luffa gourd vine is left, starting to grow up the fence among some wild vine (not sure if it's a Balsam gourd or cow-itch vine) that's been growing there the whole time I've lived here. The luffa is being optimistic here, putting out a male flower.
I'm surprised this one White Wonder cucumber plant is still alive.
The regular pole beans are almost all dead. This is one of the Blue Coco beans that's still trying to hang on.
Some of the yardlong beans are still hanging in there, but aren't growing much. You can see the sunburn on the one on the left of the picture here.
My Thai basil isn't doing too bad. It's in full flower and actually looks kinda pretty. I picked a bunch of it one time to make some Thai food, and Daniel came home and asked me, "Where did you get those flowers?" He was surprised that they were basil and not something ornamental.

I also went ahead and planted the rest of my Ms. Burns Lemon basil next to the Thai basil. It's still small, but hanging in there. This is supposed to be an especially drought tolerant variety of basil.

I also planted the Asian Red Amaranth I had in pots, but I'm afraid they might have been in pots too long, and have gotten stunted. They're already bolting even though they're not very big. The flower clusters look cool, though.
The black eyed peas and cowpeas and lima beans aren't doing too bad. Still no pods, but at least the plants themselves look good.
Now the sad part. I decided to quit watering the tomatoes, and this is what I got. I got a decent spring tomato crop, and tomatoes have trouble setting fruit in this heat anyway, so the tomatoes were one of the things I decided to sacrifice.

This is where my sweet potatoes used to be. It was mostly grass with just a few sweet potato plants under there getting smothered, so I decided to give up on them and mow the whole thing down. I did the same with the watermelons. Maybe next year.
Really, that's about it for the garden. Everything else not shown here is dead. Here's a picture of my hope for fall. The fall tomatoes and eggplants have been put in separate pots, while the peppers are still in communal pots. I hope I didn't start the peppers too late, but I had a bunch of seeds that were getting old, so I thought I might as well experiment with them.
The little bit of rain we had made my mystery flowers happy. I'm not sure what kind of flowers these are, but they have been growing in my yard the whole time we've lived here. They have narrow leaves and tuber-like roots (which I discovered by digging up the ones coming up in the garden). The yellow flowers only open in the evening. I'm assuming they're some kind of wildflower, but I have no idea what they are. Pretty though.

Finally, I just thought I'd share a cute picture of our old lady cat, K.K., enjoying her Kitty Pool on the front porch. It's the tray from a large plastic plant pot that I filled with water and put outside to supplement the bird bath for wild animals to drink out of. K.K. is one of those odd cats who likes to play in water, and she found a better use for it. She had just been dipping her paws in it, but she finally went ahead and got all the way in, so I just had to get a picture. Doing this on the porch is much less messy than when she splashes around in her drinking water in the kitchen.