Despite the ice & snow, it's time for us to get serious about this year's garden. I started plants several weeks ago- mostly things we'll be planting in the large greenhouse- a variety of tomatoes and peppers, mostly, with a few other things too, like eggplant, leeks, and basil. We don't heat the small seed starting greenhouse, so my plants spend nights inside, and I carry out the trays in the morning once the sun has heated up the space to 60 degrees or more. Then in the evening, I carry them back inside. On cold & cloudy days where there just isn't a lot of sun and the greenhouse stays cold, I also have florescent lighting to keep them green & happy. Natural light is best, but this is a close second and keeps my sprouts from getting leggy due to lack of enough light. I started out with 3 trays of seedlings, which doesn't sound like a lot. But each tray has 128 holes, so it's actually (potentially) 384 plants! Once they get crowded in the 1" x 1" cells, I'll transplant them into larger containers, so three trays will become more like 8, and so on...
I started 3 more trays this past week- Thursday, to be exact. Another whole flat of tomatoes, one of peppers, and another mixed flat that has more peppers, plus broccoli, flowers and herbs. It's an ambitious number of plants, but at the same time I'm ready to start more. This year, we plan to double our garden size. While we had lots of veggies for sale last season, at the end of many days I didn't have as many left as I have been used to, so I wasn't able to make the usual numbers of pickles, salsas and things like that. It's a good problem to have because it means we're selling more produce! So, this year I'd like to be able to start all the seedlings we'll need (unless I find something really exciting when I'm out & about this spring). I absolutely LOVE the work that goes into starting transplants, and I'd actually like to do enough that I have a nice selection of leftovers to offer to the public as bedding plants. Peppers and tomatoes are obvious biggies as far as what folks like to plant, and they take the longest so they get started first. I'll have things like zucchini and cucumbers as well, but they grow faster and I won't be ready to start them until next month.
For years, tomatoes were red spheres in your grocery store year-round. OK, you know there are also little cherry tomatoes, and you may know that there are Roma tomatoes, which are thick and meaty and make great sauces. But that is just the tip of the tomato iceberg! There are yellow tomatoes, green ones, purple, pink, striped and solid. Tart ones and others that are low-acid. Every size, from tiny to 2 lbs per tomato! Members of Seed Savers Exchange have a collection of nearly 5,000 different varieties of tomatoes alone, and another 900 or so of peppers! The neat thing about heirlooms is that they were bred by someone- an individual, a family, a region of gardeners- in a specific place (climate) to produce a specific kind of fruit. Modern hybrids are bred to do OK everywhere, across climates. With heirlooms, it's different. A melon bred in hot, humid Georgia will likely flop here in northwest Pennsylvania. So you have to think about where the seed came from- I'm much further ahead to try a melon developed in Minnesota, since the nights get chilly there, too. But having tons of varieties is actually really, really important to our food supply. Most folks have heard of the Irish potato famine, when a blight wiped out the year's potato crop and many folks died of starvation or emigrated to America. What is not so commonly known is that a major contributing factor was the fact that everyone planted the same variety of potato. So when one patch got the blight, it swept like wildfire across the country and everyone's potatoes were vulnerable, with disastrous results. Unfortunately, we really haven't learned our lesson on that one. Most industrial scale farms plant genetically identical hybrids to make production easier and more consistent. The problem is that they are all equally susceptible to diseases, pests, or climate change. I have seen first hand how different varieties of the same plant react differently to weather conditions (like a very wet summer) or to a disease like late blight, which is unfortunately becoming a yearly event in our area. Planting a variety of different tomatoes, peppers, squash, or other vegetable means I have genetic diversity in my garden. Some will quickly succumb to a pest, while others continue to grow. I've noticed, for instance, that my Riesentraube plum tomatoes are nearly resistant to the late blight. They will still be blooming and setting fruit after other tomatoes are dead and rotting.
Every year, I have favorites that are guaranteed a spot in my gardens, whether it's for disease resistance like the Riesentraubes, or for exceptional flavor, like my Red Zebras. But each year, when I'm looking through the seed catalogs and planning my garden, I like to audition a few more. I noticed the yellow tomatoes I planted last year were not very productive and got the blight very quickly, so this year I'll try another yellow one and see if it does any better. I have some fun, new peppers- some hot, some sweet. Basically, I'm addicted to heirlooms! I love the incredible variations in flavor, color, and shape. And it's a really cool feeling to see seeds start to grow in general, but it's perhaps even more special to see ones which were the result of my seed saving efforts last fall. It's also really neat to be a part of something like preserving the genetic diversity of our food system by doing so, and helping to keep alive a variety that, sometimes, go back hundreds of years.