Posts tagged ‘tomatoes’

The Seed Debate

Here’s the question at the center of a big debate among gardeners: which is better – heirloom or hybrid seeds? A recent New York Times article pokes fun at the growing number of gardeners who insist on buying heirloom seeds, forsaking hybrids of any kind. Are they being too hard on hybrids? Maybe even a little anti-science? This blog post tries to sort it all out.


Continue Reading April 13, 2011 at 5:46 pm Leave a comment

Wild Man Builds Roots in Harlem

Joe Gonzalez tends the herbs in the backgard of his backyard of his Harlem apartment.

Joe Gonzalez tends the herbs in the backyard of his Harlem apartment.

Joe Gonzalez is the “wild man” on the block but not for reasons one might think.  The resident of Central Harlem grows what to budding local gardeners border on exotic: peas and carrots. 

Gonzalez’s neighbors are sticking to garden basics like tomatoes and maybe a few herbs.  After all, they’re just beginners in the world of urban backyard gardening.  

Gonzalez, vice president of the block association covering 118th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Avenue — a brownstone-lined block voted the most active by Community Board 10 last year — may well have helped his neighbors discover their inner gardeners.  When he moved into the basement of his landlord’s brownstone almost five years ago, he quickly got to work on transforming the derelict backyard into a garden.  He earmarked a sliver of the 200-square-foot yard for herbs, growing lavender, peppermint, oregano, cilantro, rosemary, spearmint and basil. 

The herbs thrived.  Bushes of mint and lavender grew so large Gonzalez didn’t know what to do with them.  That’s when the “idea sprouted.” He’d give his excess herbs away.  Gonzalez posted a message on Google, on a group page created for people on the block, and almost immediately he had takers.   

Since then, Gonzalez has looked for ways to share his bounty.  He drops off spare spearmint at a café on the block — “for their sweet teas,” he says — and shares his excess herbs at the block association’s monthly meetings. 

Now his neighbors are thinking about growing and sharing their own food too.  Though no one has yet brought any garden-grown produce to the meetings, neighbors tell Gonzalez they’re working on it.  They even planned a neighborhood potluck dinner where everyone will bring dishes made with as many ingredients as possible from their own gardens.  The big potluck is scheduled for Sept. 19. 

The idea of swapping and sharing food is picking up in many parts of the country, as reported in this article in the New York Times. The article cites Web sites such as and that are providing forums for people to post garden-grown fruits and vegetables they’d like to swap, donate or sell.

Gonzalez’s garden bounty is too modest to post on such sites. The garden is limited by the size of the yard.  Still, he manages to grow tomatoes, carrots, peas, cucumbers and peppers – all on a narrow strip lining one side of the garden.  The center is a square patch of grass, hand-weeded and mowed with old-style hand mower. 

“This to me is my country house,” said Gonzalez, noting that Times Square is only a 15-minute subway ride away. 

The country environment took time to build.  When he moved in, the backyard was overgrown jungle strewn with debris and surrounded by dilapidated brownstones with chain-link fences.

Gonzalez reclaimed the yard, using scrap lumber, bricks and other materials from the crumbling townhouses to build a deck, shelves for garden tools, planter boxes, and a garden bench.  

Everything he’s done — from building a garden to giving away excess food — stems from his heightened “consciousness about waste,” he says.  Why, he thought, let those 100-year-old floorboards go to waste?  What about all those herbs? 

It’s that kind of thinking that makes Gonzalez the undisputed “wild man” on one of Manhattan’s most active city blocks.

Gonzalez’s consulting business,, provides homeowners and commercial property owners with eco-friendly construction solutions. He specializes in the renovation of brownstones.  For more about his business, go to

July 1, 2009 at 2:03 pm 3 comments

Farmers in Training

Sheep graze in orchard of 47-acre Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park, Queens.

Sheep graze in orchard of 47-acre Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park, Queens.

It was mid-August, just weeks before the peak tomato harvesting season, when I visited Michael Grady Robertson last year at the Queens County Farm Museum, a 47-acre working historical farm in Floral Park, Queens.  Robertson was bracing for a bumper crop.  He expected to harvest more than 1,000 pounds of tomatoes a week. 

Dressed in a snug T-shirt and jeans, his hair cropped tight, he almost passed for James Dean.  He strode along the penthouse-size pens of pigs, goats and sheep, reflecting on the goals he sought to achieve as the farm’s recently hired full-time supervisor.  Aside from increasing agricultural production, he wanted to implement the highest standards of organic farming practices for fields and livestock and create an environment where animals could be “happiest and healthiest in.”  In addition, he wanted to become a long-term resource for people who wanted to transition into farming from city jobs.

“I want to be here years and years and years,” said the Kansas City native, a resident of Green Point, Brooklyn.

For Robertson, 33, a philosophy major from Boston University, the position at the Queens County Farm Museum was the culmination of a string of volunteer jobs and apprenticeships on farms in the U.S. and abroad, including a nine-month “labor of love” in a rural community in Guatemala. 

“It’s by far the most rewarding,” said Robertson of his job as farm supervisor. 

Robertson followed the path that many recent college grads are taking to explore their vocation for farming.  Many are working as summer interns or apprentices on farms, some even dropping out of school to work as farmhands. 

According to the Northeast Small Farm Institute, a non-profit that runs an apprenticeship and other programs for aspiring farmers, the number of young adults applying for farm apprenticeships is on the rise.  Last year, 60 people applied to the institute’s NEWOOF apprenticeship program, up from 36 the previous year.

Having learned the ropes of organic farming, Robertson is now at a point where he can train and educate others.  Soon after he joined the farm in February 2008, he hired a farm assistant, Keha McIlwaine, a Bed-Stuy resident originally from Utah who one day would like to have her own farm.  McIlwaine, 26, plants, harvests, weeds, irrigates and does all the “basic farming things.” She dropped out of college when she realized that she wanted to study agriculture and the school didn’t offer any courses.  Since then, she’s been “learning farming by doing it.”

“All young people thought they were growing up at the end of the world,” she said reflecting on the issues that influenced her generation.  “We were looking for alternative ways of doing things.” With farming, people can put lost skills and knowledge to use, so that “everyone knows how to shear a sheep or plant a garden,” she said. “We’ve lost so much of that common knowledge.”

To Robertson’s deep satisfaction, the farm is quickly becoming a “go to” place for urbanites who want to learn about organic farming or think they might want to farm.  Robertson reports that people — restaurateurs especially — often approach him for opportunities to work or volunteer on the farm to “see what it takes” — physically, intellectually, financially, and emotionally — to be a farmer.   

As farm production expands, Robertson hopes to have a small seasonal apprentice-like program. “I would like to expand to the point where I need three, four, five dedicated people who want to do this with their life,” he said. 

Competition for choice farm apprenticeships is as fierce as the battle to be the next Apprentice or American Idol. McIlwaine lined up several farming gigs through Willing Workers on Organic Farms – WOOF – an international organization that gives participants room and board on organic farms in exchange for their help.  After “woofing” for a while, she worked on farms in Vermont, California, Spain and Argentina. 

Her experiences helped her confirm her life’s calling.  “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said of farming. 

Neither can Robertson. When I left him that mid-August day, he was planning ahead, thinking way beyond the upcoming tomato season.  He stood in a field of mixed crops, – the “night shades” – tomatoes, peppers and eggplants – plucking hot peppers into a white bucket.  The peppers fell in one by one under a gentle noonday sun. 

“We’ll hang them in one of the wings of the greenhouse to dry,” Robertson said holding out the bucket.  “We’ll have dried hot peppers to sell at the Greenmarket.”

May 28, 2009 at 1:32 am 1 comment

After the Tomato Scare

Now that the tomato scare is over, people can go back to buying one of summer’s perennially favorite crops.  The question is, should shoppers buy organic or conventionally grown tomatoes? If they’re looking for the more nutritious tomatoes, the organic ones might be the way to go.  A farming experiment at the University of California, Davis – as reported by NPR’s Allison Aubrey in May – found that organic tomatoes are more nutritious. The experiment, which is part of a 100-year study, compared organic and conventionally grown tomatoes in neighboring plots.  The organic tomatoes had almost double the concentration of two flavonoids associated with strong antioxidant activity:  quercetin and kaempferol.

Was the difference due to how the tomatoes were grown?  The jury is still out on that, but the experiment suggests that it was.  A possible scientific explanation for why the type of fertilizer used – natural or chemical – may have influenced the nutritional value of the tomatoes is tied to how quickly they absorbed nitrogen.

The conventionally grown tomatoes quickly absorbed the nitrogen in the commercial fertilizer they received, while the organic tomatoes had to work harder to absorb the nitrogen in theirs.  The organic tomatoes used natural fertilizer made of manure and composted cover crops.  The slower absorption of the nitrogen played a role in the formation of flavonoids in the organic tomatoes.

That said, researchers weren’t 100 percent sure that the difference was due to how the tomatoes were grown. Other possible explanations could have been differences in soil types, moisture and irrigation, and variety of tomatoes.

July 31, 2008 at 12:35 am Leave a comment

Hydroponic Tomatoes — A New Spin on Eating Seasonally

Today was my first time to the farmers market this year.  It’s been cold and I’ve had other commitments on Saturday mornings—like sleeping—but today I managed to shake myself out of my winter slumber.  I wanted to see what the market was like on a cold 31 degree morning.  I was surprised to find a good number of farmers there – selling apples, eggs, milk, cheese, pork, beef, lamb, potatoes, turnips, beets, kale and winter greens, among other foodstuff.  Farmers are a hardy bunch, and I was glad to see that the market didn’t go into complete hibernation, as I almost did. 

The highlight of my visit was buying my very first hydroponically grown tomato.  Instead of growing from soil, these tomatoes grow indoors from trays of water.  I’m not exactly sure how it works, but the woman said something about hydroponics being a very sustainable way to grow food. 

I picked one of the smallest tomatoes there—they were all beefsteak tomatoes with a few green tomatoes thrown in—and decided to try it.  It tasted fabulous—it had a nice texture and dissolved in my mouth, just like the ones grown in soil in the middle of the summer.  So I guess I won’t have to give up tomatoes if I don’t want to this winter.  What a treat!  It puts a whole new spin on eating seasonally.

January 27, 2008 at 4:21 am Leave a comment

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