Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Russian Green Gem: Malakhitovaya Shkatulka Tomato

Like legions of gardeners across the country I'm always on the lookout for a tasty tomato to grow. The open-pollinated Malakhitovaya Shkatulka is my favorite from this summer's harvest - indeed, it's a real gem, true to its name.

Typically, I vow to grow the tomatoes I love best from our harvest again next summer, then I end up growing varieties that are new to me. Often it's a matter of opportunity. I got the seeds for Malakhitovaya Shkatulka free at a seed swap last February, and the photo looked so beautiful I just had to try it. I'd never heard of it and I struggle with its Russian name, but you can bet that I'll be saving the seeds to plant next year (at least that's my plan).

A Russian Jewel
It really is a gem, as its name suggests: Malakhitovaya Shkatulka means "malachite box" in Russian (Малахитовая Шкатулка).  Malachite is a gem used for jewelry and at one time was also used to make jewelry boxes. The tomatoes are large: my bigger ones reached 3/4 lb each, and have a beautiful green skin that is blushed with an apricot hue as they ripen.  Another plus about this tomato is that it doesn't seem to mind mild summer weather as is typical in the San Francisco Bay Area, so growing Russian tomatoes in the cooler parts of the US makes sense.

This tomato has a very satisfying tomatoey flavor in line with other low acid varieties, such as Brandywine. I think another of its outstanding features is the gorgeous color, especially in a simple sliced tomato salad with red onion, fresh basil and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

That's what I use as a taste-test standard and the first thing I eat every summer with my freshly ripened garden tomatoes.

Seeds with Stories
This particular variety appears to have come to the US in 2007 according Tatiana's TOMATObase web site. Tatiana Kouchnarev acquired the seeds from Tamara Yaschenko of Biysk, Siberia, Russia, in 2006 in a seed exchange.  Tatiana in turn offered it in the 2007 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, where it was then requested by Jere Gettle of Baker CreekHeirloom Seeds, and it was offered in the 2008 catalog. Gettle brought it to the EcoFarm seed swap last February, where I snagged a packet and grew it this summer. The tomato originated in Russia at Svetlana Farm.

A dizzying number of tomatoes of many colors, shapes and sizes are available to the home gardener who is willing to grow from seed.

Have you grown this tomato before? Would you grow it again, and where are you located?

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Strawberry Sherbet with Homegrown Strawberries


I’ve been harvesting lots of  berries starting in spring through the summer from my modest three by four foot strawberry patch in my front yard, so I was inspired to try them in this easy sherbet recipe. I figured that if I’m going to eat something with sugar and dairy in it, it may as well be made with high quality ingredients, in other words, homegrown and homemade.  

See my version below of a basic recipe I found at Eat Drink Love, that uses only 2 cups of fresh berries, and scroll down for a photo of the strawberry bed in my front yard edible landscape.

 The 2 cups of berries in this recipe is not a huge amount and very doable for the home garden.

Making sherbet with milk and a variety of fresh berries is simple and gives spectacular results. Instead of making ice cream, which is incredibly high in dairy fat and eggs yolks as well, I think you'll agree that sherbet is a fantastic alternative. You can use other types of berries too. I've also used fresh berries that we've kept frozen, and in combinations.

Fresh Strawberry Sherbet Recipe

You Will Need
2 cups fresh organically grown strawberries, hulled and rinsed
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (Meyer lemon if available)
2 cups organic whole or low fat milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar
½ teaspoon high quality vanilla
Pinch of sea salt

Three Step Strawberry Sherbet Method
1. Put all of the ingredients into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.

2. Chill the mixture until it is very cold for best results (2 or more hours).

3. Churn in an ice cream maker, about 20 – 30 minutes until very thick, then freeze 2- 3 hours or overnight.( This works well in my Cuisinart ice cream maker with a well chilled bowl that I keep ready in the freezer, but you should follow specific instructions for your brand of ice cream maker).


 Conventionally Grown Strawberries: The Dirty Truth
Eating freshly picked berries is heavenly, since you’ll get the best flavor and ripeness. A lot has been written about conventionally grown strawberries because they are notoriously grown with high inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and fumigants, and they don’t even taste very good since they are often picked when under-ripe.

By growing your own strawberries you can be sure they aren’t laced with pesticide residues and that soil-destroying fumigants weren’t used. You can also find organically grown berries at your farmer’s market, but unfortunately it’s likely that the stock plants were produced by using fumigants and pesticides.

Read more about growing your own strawberries in Eat Drink Better’s Becky Striepe’s post, and read a peer reviewed scientific study about the advantages of organically grown strawberries versus conventionally grown here.

 This post was also published on Eat Drink Better

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Monday, August 6, 2012

What is Sustainable Gardening? My Test Case with Surprising Results

Replacing an old juniper hedge with a beautiful flowering, edible rosemary hedge that bees love is a good thing, right? In my sustainability analysis I'm surprised at my conclusions, but at peace with my decision.

Sustainability: What it is
What is meant by sustainable practices? At its core, it means taking into account the impacts of our actions on the environment, on people, and on economic concerns, so that we don't compromise the future. Deciding on whether to replace my standard- issue suburban juniper hedge with a rosemary hedge turned out to be a good test case. Here's why:

Sustainable gardening puts to use the principles of sustainability, and there is actually a document to point to for these so called Hannover Principles, also known as, a "Bill of Rights for the Planet", which are used as guidelines. They are credited to William McDonnell Architects and were developed for an  EXPO held in Hannover, Germany.

Recently I had a chance to apply these principles to my hedge replacement plan. I took a short course on  sustainable practices  through my horticultural program this summer and it was a good eye-opener that got me thinking deeper about my own approach to gardening. I have to give credit to instructor Frank Niccoli, a sustainable landscaper who teaches in my Environmental Horticulture and Design program.

My Test Case
We inherited the junipers when we bought our suburban home, and I've never found them attractive, in fact they irritate me.  They don't flower, they are prickly, and I don't like their odor. They are leftovers of gardening practices popular in the 50's and came with our house.  In contrast, rosemary is an attractive shrub with lovely sky blue to purple flowers that attract bees, has a wonderful fragrance, is useful in the kitchen and can be pruned into a hedge. It's also drought tolerant. On the surface it seems like an obvious decision to go ahead with my replacement scheme.

But I applied sustainable principles in analyzing my plan and I was surprised at my conclusions. See if you agree.

My Analysis
To remove the juniper hedge I would have to:

1. Pay someone to take out a row several feet long of these shrubs.
2. Pay to have the roots removed so that I could plant something in their place; leaving any roots means they might grow back.
3. Pay to have the waste from the shrubs be disposed of at the dump, because they cannot be used for mulch.

4. The energy use involved in removal and transportation to the dump are costs to the environment (pollution and use of petroleum based non-renewal energy).
5. The truckload of yard waste is needlessly adding to the landfill, which is a societal cost, since garbage keeps coming, but landfill space is limited.

The Benefits of Doing Nothing
Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing; here are the arguments for keeping the junipers:

1. The juniper shrubs have the advantage of being drought tolerant which is very important in my dry California climate.
2. There are currently no monetary or environmental costs to keeping the juniper hedge as is (I've been hand-pruning for the past several years).

My Conclusion
Sadly for my rosemary hedge fantasy, the resources required to replace the junipers with something I happen to like better far out weigh the benefits. Part of the equation is that I already have several rosemary bushes that provide herbs for my kitchen and flowers for bees. I also grow a profusion of other herbs and flowering plants that benefit my garden ecosystem.

Thinking in a New Way
“Sustainable design is not a reworking of conventional approaches, and technologies, but a fundamental change in thinking and in ways of operating–you cannot put spots on an elephant and call it a cheetah.”
- Carol Franklin, Andropogan Associates LTD.
A sustainable approach to gardening and to our lifestyles in general, means that we take a global approach to everything we do by weighing the impacts. For the gardener this means that we consider the inputs and the outputs of our home gardening practices. This simply means  that a minimum, we think carefully about the types of plants that we grow and landscape with, fertilizers we use, and what we do with garden waste.

In my test case the arguments in favor of replacing the juniper hedge with pollinator-attracting rosemary are weak when considered in the context of my particular garden.

Therefore, the junipers will live to see another day and having realized the real costs, it's a decision I can live with.

Photo: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke