Monday, 28 February 2011

Blithe Tomato

by Francesca @ Fuoriborgo

In response to a number of requests, I'll be posting one final updated version of the List of International Seed Catalogs in a couple of weeks. If you have more suggestions, please leave them in the comments here.

Picture 15

In winter time, when I don't garden, I like to read about gardening. I especially enjoy books written by gardeners who describe and muse about their life as growers. Blithe Tomato by Mike Madison is the most recent such book I've read. It's a wonderful collection of short, essay-like chapters in which the author, who lives in the Sacramento Valley, shares his views and insights on his life as a small farmer, his rural community, and the farmers' markets in the Sacramento Valley.

Madison's experience as a grower in a land so far away from me was very interesting to read: under clear California skies, he sun-dries small Italian paste tomatoes, Principe Borghese, in just a few days, whereas my experiments with sun-drying Pepolino date tomatoes here in Northern Italy resulted in a tray of shriveled tomatoe halves covered in gray mold. His soil is very fertile, but he has his share of problems, too. His area is plagued by gophers, a ubiquitous burrowing rodent that I'd never heard of, and whose damage to his crops and orchards made my loud complaints about our deer and wild boars sound rather wimpy: at least my garden-gobbling pests are large, above-ground creatures that you can't miss!

Woven throughout the book are the author's thought-provoking observations, which go well beyond his work and community, and touch on his personal philosophy. For instance, he discusses trends in fruit and vegetable breeding, and the fact that the most popular varieties of certain crops, most notably corn, but also carrots, apples, beets and grapes, are hybrids containing the sh-2 supersweet gene, which boosts their sugar content, resulting in level of sweetness that drowns out the vegetable's or fruit's original flavor. Does our society really need food that's been artificially or genetically or even naturally sweetened (think of the sugar that often is added to canned vegetables)?

But what struck me most was the chapter where Madison talks about methods of tilling soil in organic farming. Around this time of year, as gardening season approaches, I always suffer from a bad case of rototiller envy, directed at all those farmers out there in their fields with their rototillers and tractors and weed-busters and other mechanical devices, effortlessly ploughing, turning, aerating, fertilizing, and otherwise manipulating their soil, while the only things I have to work my vegetable garden are a few simple hand tools, my two hands, and my back (and these days, not a particularly good back, either...).

I'm a good enough gardener, but I've always tried to make my garden as biodynamic as possible. So I was amused, and encouraged, to see Mike Madison write this:

I've always been skeptical of those organic farmers who are so insufferably self-righteous about not using synthetic chemicals but who drive up and down the place in a tractor spewing carcinogenic diesel smoke all over their crops.
(Blithe Tomato, Mike Madison, p. 94)

Organic gardening starts with the soil, in ways that go beyond the type of manure or fertilizer we use. Madison's words eased my end-of-winter rototiller envy. Though it didn't help my back pain much.