Tag: tomatoes

What’s in a name: heirlooms, hybrids and GMOs

When it comes to understanding and distinguishing the difference between heirloom plants, the lines are clear to commercial growers, but may be a bit blurry to the home gardener.

Heirloom plants

If you’re part of the baby boomer generation, your grandparents, and probably your parents grew heirloom vegetables almost exclusively. Most heirloom seeds have been handed down from generation to generation – most regions of the country. They were hand-picked by gardeners for a special trait – perhaps the specific taste of a tomato, or the hardiness of a squash plant. Some may have been developed by a university when commercial breeding of vegetables was just beginning – at least a half century ago. Some heirloom varieties are centuries old.

The most descriptive aspect of heirloom plants is that they are all open pollinated, which means they are pollinated by wind or insects and no human intervention is needed. Also, the characteristics of heirlooms tend to remain stable from one year to the next.

There seems to be general agreement among gardeners that heirloom varieties taste better than hybrids or GMOs.  However, heirlooms are known for certain inconsistencies. The harvest time may be unpredictable, and the size of the fruit can vary widely.

Some heirloom fruits and vegetables include lemon cucumbers, Mexican Sour gherkin cucumber, Pink Accordion tomato, Lebanese Bunching effplant, green nutmeg melon, Romanesco broccoli and Chiogga beet.


Since heirlooms were generally used for home consumption, Gardeners grew them for flavor. However, with increasing U.S. population after World War II, commercial growers began looking for consistencies in harvest time, size, amount of production, ship ability and color of vegetables and other plants.

Plant breeders create hybrids when they intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties of a plant, hoping to create a new hybrid variety that contains the best traits of both parent varieties. Although hybrids are often confused with genetically modified organisms, there is a significant difference.

Of course, cross-pollination takes place naturally as well but when hybridizing, growers carefully control the pollination to make sure that the traits they are looking for occur with the offspring. Traits they may be looking for are resistance to disease, insect or fungal infections, and bigger or more uniform size. Creating the right hybrid takes many long years of experimentation and recording of traits.

The Juliet (Roma) tomato is an example of a hybrid tomato. So is Sun Gold, a yellow cherry tomato.

Sime of the good traits of hybrids are: dependability in size and color, uniformity in color and flavor, better disease resistance, higher yield and less care required.

Hybrid corn goes back centuries –  to the Mayans in Central America. Hybrids include carrots, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage and squash.

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)

These are plants (or animals) whose genes have been changed using genetic engineering processes. Scientists use genetically modified organisms to produce medicines and foods.

In plants, scientists have been transferring genes for years now. Genes have been transferred within the same species, across species and even across kingdoms. GMOs are also being used in the research and production of pharmaceutical drugs, experimental medicine and, of course, in plants.

There are many GMO crops and many GMO seeds available. Some of the commercial vegetables and food we eat have been genetically modified. The idea behind GMO engineering is to produce a trait in a plant that does not occur naturally in the species.

In plants, GMO species are bred to create resistance to pests, diseases, environmental conditions. It can also help in reducing the amount of large amounts of the food product spoiling that occurs during long transportation. Genetic engineering of plants can also make them resistant to herbicides.

GMOs are not restricted to plant species. Many foodstuffs contain GMOs: baking powder, citric acid, condensed milk, glucose, glycerin, lecithin, maltodextrin, protein isolate starch, sugar, vegetable fat, and vitamins B!2 and E. If you object to consuming GOs, buy certified organic and look for the non-GMO label.

Heirloom plants are not hybrids and hybrids are not genetically modified organisms. Hybrids and heirlooms are not genetically manipulated in labs. They don’t contain foreign DNA from a species that is very different.

GMOs however, cannot exist without laboratory manipulation, Monsanto is the largest developer of plant GMOS, and are followed by several other biotech companies.


Start your own seeds indoors

Start your own seeds indoors?At one time, I thought that plant propagation meant simply sticking a seed in the ground and watching it grow. That might be okay for vegetables like beans, cucumbers, melons and squash, or some ornamentals. However, some vegetable and flower seeds need some tenderness to urge them to germinate.

Tomatoes seeds, for instance, need to be planted about six weeks before the last frost. Those tomato plants we buy in early spring were started in a nursery greenhouse many weeks before. That’s not to say you can’t just plant tomato seeds directly in the garden. However, to germinate, tomato seeds need a soil temperature between 70 and 80F. The cooler the soil, the longer it takes for them to germinate. The chances of all the tiny seedlings planted directly in the garden surviving being pummeled by wind and rain, insects and infections are very high. Tomatoes and many other plants need to be between six and 10 inches tall before they are placed in the garden. This insures that they are healthy, and strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of nature.

It’s not difficult to start plants from seed inside. You need a warm, sunny spot (like a kitchen window) small pots (see the photo above, a good growing medium and some patience.

However, if you want to grow a lot of plants from seed, you may need some additional help. And you might want to keep a record of your progress.

The photo above includes most of the items I use to propagate plants from seed and for plants from cuttings.

I keep a garden journal, which includes observations, musings, insights and just about whatever seeps out of my brain when I’m propagating, as well as planting in my yard and garden. I scrounged some small sturdy boxes to store stuff in as well.

I am experimenting with different types of seed starting pots. I like the idea of coir (pronounced coy-er) pots, because they are made from coconut fiber, which is a renewable resource. However, I have also found that they dry out quicker than peat moss pots. Peat moss is not a renewable resource, though. The cow waste pots seem to be working well, but they’re expensive, and, because of that, I won’t be using them in the future.

In the upper left of the photo, you see a binder. In it I keep records of plantings, germination, transplanting, and harvesting, as well as expenses, specific information about plants, and chores I need to do. Since I am a very messy OCD individual (an accomplishment, don’t you think?), there are generally notes everywhere, so I need some structure to remember what I’m doing.

The gloves in the photo, I wear in the winter, mostly outside, when I am taking cuttings. I use my bare hands when I’m sowing indoors, though.

I learned very early that when I’m starting 50 or so plants from seed, that I will not remember which is which and since many seedlings look just alike, I use plant labels. Any type of label will do. Popsicle sticks, wooden coffee stirrers, just about anything you can write on can make a good plant label.

I also use a seed sower…that green thing in the foreground that resembles a magnifying glass. Most seeds are tiny, and I certainly don’t have surgeon’s hands, so I use this seed sower. It’s got many different sized distribution holes to accommodate different sizes of seeds.

The pencil and the chopstick in the photo I use as dibbles, for making holes in the growing medium. The scissors are for snipping out weaker seedlings.

You may also notice my laptop resting under my journal in the left. I use this to research care and propagation of different plants. Also, in the background are seed catalogues. Seed catalogues contain a plethora of information about plant propagation. Many of them also carry some of the materials in the photo.

If you feel you want to try your luck at plant propagation, Virginia Tech has a great site with propagation information.  This is part of a series of articles I will be writing on plant propagation.

Photo: Clockwise from far left: 1. Garden journal; 2. Salvaged boxes for storing seed supplies; 3. Seed starting pots mad of coir; 4. Seed starting pots made from biodegradable farm waste; 5. Peat pots; 6. Garden record book; 7. Gloves; 8. Plant labels (both wooden and plastic); 8. Seed sower; 9. Pencil used as a dibble to make small holes to plant seeds; 10. Scissors; 11. Chopstick dibble.

Why have the squirrels eaten my green tomatoes?


The other day, I found one of my large tomatoes, still green, sitting half-eaten on my back deck. The next day, another. A few days later, my daughter caught a fat little rascal munching down on another green tomato.  He (or she…I haven’t learned to tell them apart) dropped it and ran for the  large oak in the back yard.

Now, I don’t mind the squirrels eating some of my tomatoes. After all, they have to eat too, and The Woodlands has an ordinance against using firearms. A BB gun did come to mind, but after thinking it through, I decided that sitting in my back yard in the mid-day heat, waiting for one of them to approach my vegetable garden, wasn’t that appealing either.  Besides, growing up, I hunted squirrels often in the piney woods of south Louisiana. That took some skill and the squirrel had a chance of surviving –especially if one was a poor shot. Shooting backyard squirrels is like shooting fish in a barrel.

I have found out that squirrels are pretty opportunistic eaters. In fact, there’s not much they won’t eat – they’re not picky by any means.

Native fruits (ever wonder why your passion vine rarely has fruit), flowers , nuts, trees, insects, berries,  and mushrooms. (I do not know how they can tell the difference between edible or poisonous mushrooms, but from the way they act sometimes, I think they may sometimes consume psilocybin fungi). And, of course, they also consume TOMATOES!

While the kids are trying to avoid eating their vegetables, the squirrels will go after just about anything you have planted in your garden. They’re fond of  radishes, corn, squash, beans, greens, okra, eggplant, Brussel sprouts, carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, cabbage, and leeks, to name a few.

Speaking of kids, squirrels also love children’s breakfast cereals:  shredded wheat, corn flakes, grape nuts, and  any cereal with extra sugar. The little monsters (the squirrels… not the kids…although that could be true as well in some cases) also like pizza, cheese of any kind and crackers.

Squirrels don’t restrict their diet to vegetation and human food. They will also eat lizards, snakes, worms, birds (babies and eggs mostly).

As the world gets more and more populated, the squirrel population has expanded as well, sharing our space, and also sharing our eating habits. Now, squirrels will eat discarded food in parks (or anywhere else). This includes half-eaten sandwiches…hamburgers, hot dogs,  bologna, egg salad. They consume dog food with as much relish as your family pet, your cat’s treats, and just about anything else you leave out.

They even ate the  mealworms we put out for the bluebirds. We tried putting hot pepper on the worms, but that didn’t deter them, although the hot pepper suet did keep them away from the bird feeder.

I have to admit, I do like to see them scrambling through their little highways in the trees, barking as they twisted and turned through the meandering branches.

I realize that squirrels, like everything else, don’t live forever.  They are a part of our new suburban ecosystem though, and have adapted to survive, just as we humans have. And they have natural predators…feral (and domestic) cats, hawks and eagles, and snakes all predate on the furry creatures.

Several years ago, as I was sitting in my backyard reading Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, a squirrel   apparently disturbed by my blocking its way to greener pastures, was scolding me from the oak tree. Something whooshed above my head. As I looked up, I saw a very large red-shouldered hawk flying away with the very fat little squirrel in its talons.

Every living thing has two moments of pure truth: when we are born and when we die. The squirrel met his moment of truth naturally. I suppose we need more hawks.