Monday, May 14, 2012

...And now for something completely different!

Welcome back to another edition of LITFM, today is our mother’s day edition, and we will be featuring new and unique ways to celebrate the Mothers in your life by talking about ways to color coordinate your sock drawer!  Ah, who am I kidding, actually the article intended for today was about the origins of the tomato however I thought it more appropriate for the day to delay that to next week to cover a different angle of urban farming.

But first, I would like to thank all of you intrepid gardeners, farmers and sustainable neighbors who came out to the Urban Farm Day event and stopped by the booth. It was a great pleasure to talk to all of you and you really made the day great. As some of you know I had the fortune to be sharing a tent with Marsha from Sustainable neighbors and we formed an ultimate tag-team for sustainable organic awesome. Heck even Local Food Fred made his first public debut and was a hit! In all seriousness, all you urban farmers out there deserve special thanks, you made the event possible, also Sustainable Sandhills deserves special credit, they somehow make this event more awesome every year they run it. If any of you out there don’t have a membership with this group I advice you get one to support their cool local initiatives below is a link to their website.

Also here is a link to the Sustainable Neighbors Meetup group:

Now beyond that, if you missed UFD 2012, you know that every year I sell horticultural surplus, that is plants that were not used in my crop production usually because more seeds germinated then I had space for.  The link below goes to a list of remaining plant stock still available for sale, and keep in mind you can arrange to pick up an order or it can be delivered for a small additional charge to the greater Fayetteville area and surrounding towns.

As promised in prior articles here is a brief plant spotlight and a picture of a few plants sold at the UFD at my booth in mature form.

The Primrose Orchid, Primula vialii.
The Orchid Primrose is an oddball that as it's latin name states is an actual primrose, that is named for it's blooms that resemble the blooms of certain types of Orchids. This particular primrose tends to prefer partial shade especially in the southern states. It does best in enriched soil that receives annual additions of compost. Most references say it is a short-lived perennial and it is unclear if it will resow itself like the Yellow Fumewort does. However as seen above paired with darker foliage such as columbines it can be quite attractive even when not in bloom. This plant has been appearing a lot in Home Despot and Lowes and I expect it may be a new perennial sensation.

This is an example of the Rainbow Bell Peppers I sold at UFD, the color of their fruit is entirely random. Each plant might be green, yellow, orange, red, white, purple, brown or black fruited. This one in my high production bed seems to be purple.

This is the plant used in the Epsom salt trials, based on the color and size of the fruit I imagine it's Brown Berry one of the tomato varieties sold at UFD. The fruit are about 3/4" to 1" wide  like most dark colored tomatoes the shoulders or tops of the fruit are darker even when unripe and color up first.

 Red Malabar Spinach or Basella alba 'Rubra'; These specimens are planted in the Reinforced mound bed with full sun exposure and have a five foot trellis above to climb on. Malabar spinach is a hot-season replacement for spinach that grows rapidly and can form living edible walls to cast shade for more sun-shy plants. The berries can be used to make intensely purple or dark red dye.

This is one of the crops that did not make it past the seed stage for the most part, the crop of Black Krim Tomatoes simply refused to cooperate this year with only three seedlings emerging. I think next year I'll go back to Paul Robeson Tomatoes. Black Krim is a traditional heirloom tomato with irregular fruit and decent heat tolerance as long as you can maintain good soil quality and regular watering.

Flaming Hot container garden action! For note, the blue-green plant in the upper right is Dinosaur Kale, The large plant in the lower center is a Striped Togo eggplant, and the plant on the left edge is a Turkish-Italian Orange Eggplant. Only one 'TIO' eggplant was sold this year due to poor germination. In the ground Striped togo is tall and columnar, in a pot it's bushier and large leaved.

In the center pot: Tobago Seasoning Pepper(rear-left of pot), African Marigold, Siam Thai Queen Basil, Turkish Italian Orange Eggplant. This picture was taken to show the height and habit of the Tobago Seasoning Peppers sold at UFD. What you cant see is that the Pepper has several flower buds on it most of which are big enough to open soon.

Mindless salesmanship aside, we move onward to today’s topic of interest the culture of figs. Why figs and why on mother’s day? Well according to recent archaeological digs, sponsored in part by Rutgers University, the remains of figs found in an 11,400 year old house in Gilgal 1 an early Neolithic village in the Jordan valley have proven to be of parthenocarpic type. What this means is that figs now are officially one of the oldest cultivated crops as a parthenocarpic plant produces fruit that is effectively seedless or otherwise sterile and thus must rely on other means to propagate itself in this case us.
Why is this important much less what does it have to do with mother’s day?
Well this afternoon I was out planting two fig bushes, a Chicago Hardy and a Ischia, both of which are common varieties of figs but each was adapted differently. Keep in mind at ‘the Ranch’ as I like to call my property, the driveway has a row of robust figs on one side of the driveway already. As I was planting the new bushes on the opposite side of the driveway I got to thinking, what fruiting plant has done more for mankind and yet gets so little credit? I mean the grape gets a lot of credit, then there’s citrus famous for it’s anti-scurvy properties, and the apple which apparently is doctor-repellant… the list goes on…but no credit for the first fruit-bearing plant mankind is likely to have cultivated. In that light the fig is a little like a mother who never gets the praise deserved for an incredibly difficult task. Analogies aside, after planting the new figs one of which was a generous donation by a classmate to the Skye Project (Ischia) I got to thinking further, I hadn’t ever bothered to cover in this blog a darn thing about the culture of figs, the very fruiting bush that I had the most varieties of on premises. With oversight on that level I could work for the government!

Jokes aside, first and foremost the fig sold in stores is typically known as Common Fig and its scientific name is Ficus carica.  The first thing you should know about fig is that for all intents and purposes figs have a root system that possesses relatively few primary roots, a few secondary anchor roots but a whole lot of fibrous feeder roots. The greater number of fibrous feeder roots means that figs can be easily damaged by disturbances to the soil surface and can be easily affected by surface applications of extended control herbicides. The good news is that due to the extensive fibrous feeder root system figs also recover from wilting rapidly and respond to fertilizers with surprising speed. A careful fertilization program with excellent soil quality and generous mulch can improve fruit size and quality greatly deep but infrequent watering to compensate for drought can improve fruit quality and strengthen resistance to root damage by encouraging roots to dig deeper.

It needs to be said that the leaf morphology of a fig is variable, even on a single fig bush you may encounter several leaf shapes. Most commonly figs will bear a 3-5 lobed leaf with an irregular crenate margin. The leaf’s lobes may be greatly pronounces almost appearing maple-like in shape or entirely absent. The variability of leaf shape is often a source of identification nightmares which leaves the fruit as the only reasonable identification feature. Physically most figs unless trained into a specific shape will take a loosely upright form eventually resembling a particularly loosely branched tree with age. To date the largest figs I’ve personally seen have been about 15-20 feet tall and and in both cases they were the Brown Turkey type and were growing in swampy areas with a high water table. That last bit leads me to another important observation, the common fig grows best in a riparian setting that is an area with a high water table, near a body of water or that is subject to annual flooding in which sediment is deposited near or on its feeder roots.

The fruit of figs are interesting as they technically are not fruit but a Syconium which is a flower but turned inside out technically the seeds are the actual fruit.  In the case of caprifigs and figs such as calimyrna type a pollinator is required however for most home enthusiasts  the figs you will grow are self-fertile or more likely are parthenocarpic and thus no pollinator is needed. Further more the fruit themselves are ripe when soft to the touch, have full color for their variety and, lastly have begun to droop at the stem.

In droughty periods one has to watch out for fire ant damage to fruit and bird damage. A common trick is to protect fruit with bits of news paper so the birds cannot get at them or to apply a product such as Amdro to fend off fire ants before they can find the fruit. One other trick is to grow light skinned figs to make it harder for birds to spot the ripe fruit. Obviously there are far more figs out there then the list below, but these particular varieties are not hard to get in the Fayetteville North Carolina area and are quite reliable in general.

Light Skinned Fruit

Dark Skinned Fruit
Black Mission
Brown Turkey
Chicago Hardy

As a final note for this episode of LITFM, I might add one last thought to the culture of figs, cuttings root easily, they generally will bear the first year installed if cared for well, also most varieities fruit on last year’s wood; though Chicago Hardy will fruit on new growth readily. In conclusion to quote the Agricultural extension agent from Alamance county in North Carolina ‘Figs are the great unexplored fruit for our region, we have the right soil, climate and all the space needed, someone just needs to have a little initiative.’  

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