Monday, November 8, 2010

End of Season Tomato Review (Season 2: Heirloom Smackdown)

The first hard frost settled over the garden about two weeks ago, spelling the end of my second season of growing tomatoes in earnest.

This season I set up the grand "heirloom smackdown": old vs. new, industrial food chain vs. the old standbys of yesteryear. Okay, so what I meant to test was this: Are heirloom tomatoes really worth the hype--do they really taste better? And so, in addition to various heirloom varieties, I planted Better Boy, Early Girl, and Sweet 100s. I also planted an "heirloom" variety I found at Home Depot called "Mr. Stripey," doubtless a proud tomato variety handed down from generation to generation. Not.

Though I planned elaborate blind taste tests, in the end, all that proved unnecessary, as the winners (and losers) were clear enough.

And the winner is ... Cherokee Purple. Hands down. Nothing else came close. Like last year, they didn't fruit in profusion, but produced big, fleshy, delicious tomatoes from early July through late October.

Mr. Stripey might as well have been named "Mr. Stupid" (as in what idiot would buy an heirloom tomato at Home Depot?). The plant matured late, and produced a few watery tomatoes that tasted like a bad pineapple.

Early Girl wasn't, as in 'wasn't early'. It matured later than many of my heirlooms and, when it finally did, the tomatoes it produced were forgettable.

Better Boy was quite a bit better. Lame early (the first several tasted awful), they came on stronger as the season progressed, and the ones I harvested in August and September were rather good, though still no match for the Cherokee Purple.

Another disappointment from the heirloom side came in the form of the Jaune Flamme (Yellow Flame), pictured above, a lovely French variety that produces small, round tomatoes in thick clusters that start out a bright yellow and then mature into a deep, apricot orange. I've heard they dry beautifully, and I'm sure it's true, but that's all they're good for, far as I'm concerned: lovely to look at, but ultimately a disappointment as they taste rather bland and uninteresting.

One pleasant surprise on the industrialized side came in the form of the widely available cherry tomato called Super Sweets or Super Sweet 100s. These little gems produced like crazy and blew the socks off of my heirloom variety, the Chadwick Cherry, in terms of flavor. Small fruit, but intensely flavored. Like last year, my Chadwick's were big and beautiful (for a cherry tomato), but relatively bland: neither as sweet nor acidic as the Super Sweets.

Lastly--and I'm not ashamed to admit this--I tried growing my favorite store bought variety, the Campari, from seeds I saved from a tomato I bought at Costco. The only variety worth buying and eating through the winter, I thought they might taste even better fresh, but these hybrid seeds didn't hold 'true,' so the vast majority of tomatoes this plant produces proved small, tough, and inedible.

And that, alas, is the tomato wrap ... at least for this year. Bring on the months of tasteless tomatoes and ice berg lettuce. I can bear it. Maybe.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Doctors Who Do It Right

You know the drill when you go to the doctor these days, right? Spend 15-30 minutes in the waiting room, then a nurse or nurse practitioner finally takes your vitals, etc., asks lots of questions, and eventually--if you're lucky--you get to see the real MD for what, 5 minutes tops?

Well, how about this experience: When I lived in Bethesda, MD a few years ago, we were on a ho hum health care plan--a preferred provider network--so I had to choose an internal medicine physician from some list on the internet, selecting a random name from the relatively short list of "accepted" physicians in our area. With no other criteria to use, I opted for a doctor who had an office right on my commute route into work.

When I arrived, I checked in with a secretary that the doctor shared with a group of podiatrists. Five minutes later, the doctor--yes, "the" doctor--walked into the waiting room and called my name, then invited me into his office where he sat down at his desk and invited me to sit down opposite him. He then opened with, "So, what's up?" or some similar question, and then spent 15-20 minutes just talking about my overall health and any concerns I was having.

After hearing that, he took me into a separate exam room, where he--yep, the doctor himself--took my pulse, measured my blood pressure, and then took blood samples. After about 30 minutes, he sent me on my way, and get this: he did the same thing every time I visited.

At one point, I said to him point blank: "You know, you could probably make a lot more money going the usual physician route and using nurses/nurse practitioners and spending as little time as possible with each patient." I loved his reply: "I know, but honestly, I like to talk and, as my patient, you have to listen to me, so I prefer it this way" (or words to that effect).

Best doctor I've ever had. Never pretended to have all the answers, but was always genuinely concerned and interested in my well being. Asked lots of questions. Listened. Gave me multiple treatment options and then let me decide with the benefit of having heard all the pros and cons.

Too bad that such an experience has become so rare in U.S. health care these days. The doctor? William Condrell, MD. I'd recommend him to anybody.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

First Tomato!

Ah, yes. Despite a cool spring, I tasted my first garden tomato yesterday: a small cherry tomato called a "Super Sweet 100." Not great, but it was the first, so I probably picked it too early.

This year, I decided to plant common commercial varieties as well as heirlooms for a grand "tomato smackdown." I wanted to see how, when grown in the same soil and under the same conditions, the heirlooms really match up.

So, in addition to last year's favorites--Cherokee Purple, Black from Tula, and the Chadwick Cherry--I've planted Early Girl, Better Boy, and Super Sweet 100s, plus some new heirloom varieties--Black Krim and Juane Flamme.

Most of those are coming on fast, so it won't be long until we're in tomato heaven. Bring it on!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

George Washington’s Farewell Address

We venerate George Washington as the “Father of Our Country,” and yet, too often, we forget the man and what he stood for. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading and re-reading Washington’s Farewell Address, and I’ve been struck by the wisdom contained in that document and its continued relevance to our day. Though penned in 1789, many of its themes resonate today just as they did then, and we would do well, as a Nation, to learn and remember.

I’ve summarized a few of those themes below:

The ideal of the citizen legislator; term limits.

Washington served a second term as President reluctantly, and, when pressured to stay on for a third, firmly said, “No.” He believed in the ideal of the citizen legislator: someone whose professional occupation is not “politician,” but rather farmer, baker, teacher, or what have you, a person who undertakes to serve—temporarily—out of sense of duty rather than ambition and who returns to private life as soon as possible. In a day of career politicians, who stay in D.C. for decades and know little outside the political realm, I fear we have strayed far from that ideal and the example set by George Washington.

Humility; gratitude

Until his death, Washington remained profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve in public office, not because it conveyed status or personal recognition, but because it reflected the trust of his fellow citizens, and gave him the chance to serve as best he could. He recognized in that service that his “usefulness [was] unequal to [his] zeal.” In other words, he understood his own shortcomings, even as he did his best to serve the public well. Among today’s elected officials, such humble gratitude for the opportunity to serve and an open acknowledgement of weakness and imperfection have become rare traits indeed.

The importance of unity

We must remember that Washington and the other Founders sought to unify a Nation rather than to divide it. They saw the sum as greater than the respective parts, and sought to establish not a confederation of independent states, but a unified, federal government: e pluribus unum: out of many, one. “The unity of Government,” he wrote, “is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty, which you so highly prize.”

Which is not to say that Washington or the other Founders wanted power concentrated in any single individual or political body; quite the contrary: they set up a system that divided power between the several states and the federal government and that established an elaborate system of checks and balances designed so that "ambition would counter ambition" and preserve the liberty of the people intact.

Religion and morality

Washington realized that no government—no matter how carefully constructed—could long succeed in the absence of a virtuous people. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” he wrote, “Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.” He believed, further, that religion was indispensible to encourage morality: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Public education

Washington believed that the People and their Government should “promote … as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” Without an enlightened populace, he reasoned, it made no sense to give public opinion political force. In a representative democracy, enlightened government requires an enlightened people.

Deficit spending; taxes

In an era when the U.S. owes China approximately one trillion dollars, we would do well to remember Washington’s stern warning that we should “cherish public credit” as an “important source of strength and security.” He admonished the Nation to “use [debt] sparingly,” to “avoid[ ] the cumulation of debt,” and to use “vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts” occasioned by war. Furthermore, he recognized the payment of government debt as the responsibility not just of elected leaders, but of the people as well: “[T]owards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; [and] to have Revenue there must be taxes.” Doubtless, Washington would have viewed our current deficit spending as reckless and dangerous, as he correctly foresaw the failure to pay off public debt as a threat to our strength and security.

The dangers of factions

Though the Farewell Address contains other themes as well, the last I’ll touch on involves something that, these days, we rarely consider: namely, the dangers of factionalism, a subject on which George Washington reserved some of his most stern warnings. He warned against “all combinations and associations” that “organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.” He goes on to describe factionalism as “truly [the] worst enemy” of the people, a impulse (however prevalent) to be discouraged and restrained on account of its tendency to “agitat[e] the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindl[e] the animosity of one part against another, foment[ ] occasionally riot and insurrection.” Those warnings should resonate with anyone who spends much time reading or listening to the news these days, where countless voices—right and left—seek to divide us as a people, to raise “false alarms,” and to kindle the animosities of one group against another. As a people and as a Nation, what unites us must be greater than what divides us, and we must be, first and foremost, Americans.

That these themes still resonate in 2010 speaks to the foresight and character of George Washington. It also speaks—alas—to human nature, and reminds us that, even after 200+ years of experience with representative democracy under the Constitution, we still haven’t figured some things out. Even so, perhaps remembering the words of this great man will inspire us to do a little better.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Plants Are Cool

If William Blake found “heaven in a grain of sand,” I find it in plants. Sounds goofy, I know, but consider, for a moment, these green growing things.

You know the old magic trick, where the guy pulls a rabbit or a bouquet of plastic flowers out of an empty top hat? Well, plants do that all the time, only on a much grander scale. Only a plant can take raw energy from the sun, combine it with water and carbon dioxide and plain old dirt and … presto chango, a mere flick of the magician’s wand and we have … a pineapple. Another flick of the wand and we have a tulip, a kelp forest, a redwood tree.

Without plants, who alone possess this remarkable ability to create usable energy from sunlight, the earth couldn’t support animals, couldn’t support us. And that same miraculous process of photosynthesis absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen. So, plants not only provide us the food we eat (all food ultimately comes from plants), but the very air we breathe.

And if that isn’t magic enough, plants, which typically stay rooted in one place, come up with all sorts of crazy strategies to accomplish two of life’s great challenges: self defense, and reproduction. Many plants are veritable chemical weapons factories, others arm themselves with everything from tough hides to sharp thorns. Plants seduce bees, moths, butterflies, and other flying insects to pollinate their flowers. Some tempt animals with fruit to spread their seeds, while others, like dandelions, let them loose on the wind; others still, like that dratted Hound’s Tongue, create marvelously clingy seeds that catch a ride on passing dogs, deer, or—alas!—humans, as anyone who’s ever tried to remove them from their clothing after a hike in the hills can attest. Irritating? To be sure, but devastatingly effective.

So, why all this waxing poetic about plants today? Here in the last week of March, I just harvested my third or fourth crop of fresh basil from the window box above the kitchen sink, and used it to make a near-perfect caprese salad for lunch (a perfect salad would require fresh summer tomatoes straight from the garden; I settled for Campari tomatoes from Costco).

What did it take to produce that all that magic? A plastic tub, some potting soil, water, a few basil seeds, and sunshine. Leaning over, I open the blinds to let in just a little more sunlight: today’s solar radiation, tomorrow’s lunch, thanks to plants.

(Photo of a basil leaf courtesy of wilczooor on Flickr; original at:

Saturday, February 27, 2010


An interesting place: Portland Oregon. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as many body piercings as I saw on the 40 minute train ride from the airport to downtown, and wide swaths of downtown have something of a grubby feel. I know, I know, I’m prejudiced: a first-time visitor jumping to conclusions, but—fortunately—my Portland experience didn’t end there.

After a two-day conference, I was able to spend a half a day running around town. First, I took the train and then a public bus into the hills just West of downtown: lush, green hills dotted with tall pines and stately mansions, many dating, I would guess, from the late 1800s. Some of the most lovely old neighborhoods I have ever seen. Tucked away near the top of the hill I found a lovely Japanese garden, as beautiful as many a garden I’d visited in Japan, and I spent a contemplative hour wandering among the stones and water and clipped hedges—the mix of the natural and the engineered that characterize most Japanese gardens.

With time to spare I found a genuine sushi place for lunch ("genuine" as in actually run by a Japanese family), and still had time to catch the train to the Chinese Garden, a more recent addition to the city built by Suzhou, Portland’s sister city in China, a small town cut with canals some 50 km from Shanghai. Just as lovely as the Japanese Garden and filled with delicious aromatics even in mid-February, most of the structures were patterned after actual buildings and gardens in that town, built by hand in large pieces, and then shipped to Portland and then painstakingly assembled and reassembled, down to the impossibly complicated stone patterns that make up the “floor” of each garden room. (The patterns change as one moves from room to room and view to view.)

The only lame thing about the garden? They had cordoned off the waterfall area for “safety reasons,” depriving visitors of one of the interesting and intimate “surprises” the garden was designed to reveal. (That’s how both Japanese and Chinese gardens work, by the way: slowly revealing one surprise, one view, one meditative space after another.)

Oh yeah: and the Dungeness Crab bisque at Jake’s Famous Crawfish? To die for. The soup alone warrants a return trip.

(Photo of the Portland Chinese Garden courtesy of the Garden Conservancy; original available at:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Going Out with a Bang

My wife and kids are lucky: when I die, I just want to be cremated. Forget mouldering away in a pool of chemicals under a patch of Kentucky Blue grass. No thanks.

I know, I know: different strokes for different folks, but cremation alone seems downright boring when compared to the guy I heard about today on the radio. When he dies, he wants to be cremated, the ashes packed into paper bags and then fired out of his beloved 110-pound replica cannon on the opening day of hunting season. Now that’s going out with a bang.

(Photo courtesy of Jason C. McMillian; original photo available at:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bird Food

Wild birds crowded the front yard this morning: juncos, house finches, cedar waxwings, and a few others I couldn’t identify. The waxwings hammered the remaining crabapples, while the smaller birds moved methodically between the dry stalks and seedheads of coneflower, aster, and hummingbird mint.

I didn’t plant any of those with birds in mind. I planted them because I like tough, hardy plants, resistant to drought and neglect. What’s more, I’ve hated that crabapple, with its soft, withered fruit that lingers well into Spring, and Becky finds the dry coneflowers unsightly and asked me to clip them off last fall. Fortunately, I didn’t remove the crabapples or the coneflowers and here they are, providing a midwinter feast to native birds of every shape, color, and size. Even a few robins dropped in for a fruit snack or two, the long boughs bending beneath their weight.

The take home lessons? Look for beauty and grace in unexpected places, don’t deadhead the flowers, and leave the old crabapples alone. The birds will take care of them, soon enough.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Any Excuse

Friends and family know me as a serial hobbyist, with most of my hobbies having something to do with the great outdoors. The appeal may lie less in the hobby itself than the indirect benefits: like getting outside, at interesting times and in interesting weather, and hopefully experiencing something unique or extraordinary. Hobbies give me an excuse to be out there where the magic can happen.

I recall an experience several years ago collecting fossils on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay (sounds normal enough), but it was also at midnight during a raging storm. Sounds strange, I’m sure, but it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life: all sound and fury, wind and white caps and black water, the endless roar and spray of the surf, and there, rolling about in the surf … fossils. That night, as luck or fate or serendipity would have it, the yellow beam of my headlamp touched on one of the rarest shark teeth of all: a symphyseal tooth from a prehistoric cow shark (yeah, I’m a weirdo), which means nothing to the lay reader, but looks rather like the crown worn by the Statue of Liberty: a half circle of radiating spikes. Cool. Would not have found it—or experienced such a wild night—but for a quirky hobby and a peculiar passion for that hobby.

Do you know that you can find your way by starlight? I wouldn’t have thought so, until I was able to pick out a path quite clearly on a moonless night this past September, on a river in the wilds of Utah, where even the stars and planets cast long, bright trails over the water. What was I doing there? Fishing. At midnight, again, and it was as beautiful a sight as I’ve seen in all the world.

Again and again, hobbies have given me that kind of experience: rare moments of beauty, of wonder, of grace.

Yesterday morning found me out in the fog with a camera and tripod. Fog has that magical ability to transform the familiar into something entirely different: strange, mysterious, and wonderful, and a camera can capture that. A poor substitute for the real experience, perhaps, but, with persistence and a little bit of luck, it can produce something magical—presto!—a rabbit from the magic hat.