An acquaintance, a gardener, sent tomato seeds one year. Sharing seeds among gardeners fulfills part of the historical imperative that keeps plant varieties vital – the multiplication of seeds through dispersion.
I took the important first step of planting some of the seeds she sent, and then I saved seed from the fruit of my harvest. The New Zealand Pear. It became my favorite, and I planted it every year in the family garden.
The Pear grew stronger and stronger year after year, producing large pear shaped fruit colored the lovely red of an old-time tomato, easy to grow and delicious to eat, and I saved the seed, intermixing years in my plantings, and doing my amateur best to keep my line of the seed alive and strong.
One year I heard through the grapevine that my former acquaintance, whose path I seldom crossed, had lost her New Zealand Pears, so I sent her some seed. She was glad she had shared, I was delighted to reciprocate. This tomato became such a favorite of mine that I gave it away whenever I could, as fruit, plants and seed, and I urged friends to save seed.
And then I left the farm, and the garden. What to take when the family moves to town? I took seeds from the New Zealand Pear tomato.
Some years were easier than others for saving seeds. First I had to grow the fruit, and that proved challenging without my farm greenhouse and garden. I could start the seeds all right, in little pots on the windowsill, but the first season out my only growing spot was the dark backyard of our townhouse, an urban backyard with questionable soil.
I put the New Zealand Pear plants in big pots on our back deck, and those plants did the best they could, but only one survived, growing in a long strong horizontal vine across our yard in search of sunlight to produce…well, never any fruit. The second season I knew I had to provide better conditions, and fate was with me offering access to and control of a greenhouse and a three acre school garden.
We had a diversified program in our garden, and there was always room for a Pear tomato plant or two, enough to save seed. And I always started extra plants to give to gardeners to plant at home, urging them to join me in keeping this special variety alive.
The saving of seeds is one of the more profound obligations we can assume, participating in the work of nature in support of life, but it is not easy to keep strains pure, and seed saving requires space and special attention. The heirloom seed saving movement had grown large enough by the time I started gardening at school that many of the marvelous old plant varieties were again available commercially, now through rare seed houses and seed savers collectives. I gratefully purchased heirloom garden seeds, exploring in our school gardens the rich and delicious diversity of plants grown from seeds saved through the centuries by gardeners around the world.
When we moved again, I took my seeds for the New Zealand Pear tomato. But we had moved to a desert, and my garden projects were small and dismal as I learned slowly what one must do to grow food in a hot dry climate. I learned quickly to rely on friends who knew better than I when to plant and what to plant and how to irrigate and shade garden plants. I never abandoned my tomato seed, however, and took pains to start seed from my collection every year. Every year I was able to collect a few seeds to keep the collection current.
I kept my plants in pots. When the weather was too hot outside for tomato blossoms, I took the plants inside, and when we traveled, I took tomato plants along. I set plants wherever we landed in those years, not always able to stay for harvest but taking care to keep one plant with me always for fruiting, wherever I went.
When we arrived in Virginia two years ago, I had a collection of seeds with samples from the last ten years, looking forward to gardening again in a region with rain!
It took some time a to find a garden spot. First we had to find a house. While we searched the real estate market, I started tomato plants in the kitchen of our gardenless rental.
Then we found a place, land and barn and house, but no garden. One of the first things we did after we moved in was put an old stock tank on the front deck of the house. I filled it with beautiful old aged compost that I dug from the barnyard and then planted two New Zealand Pear tomato plants in the tank. Welcome home!
The plants liked the tank. Plenty of sunshine, plenty of attention from people going in and out of the house, and marauding deer didn’t come up onto the deck. My plants grew vigorously, and we rejoiced in a beautiful harvest.
When cold weather came, I picked the green tomatoes from the stock tank plants and discovered that the New Zealand Pear is a super winter tomato, ripening in our kitchen, firm and delicious all the way to February, truly a plant worth keeping.
Late winter, we chose a garden spot, plowed the hard red clay and tilled in piles and piles of leaves. Then the fence, trips to town for supplies, measuring, digging, tamping, stretching, ah, surely no deer can soar over our new fence, we crossed our fingers and looked forward to spring.
Meanwhile, the compost piles kept growing, in size and number. Three horses provided the manure.
The tomato starts did well by the south windows, and when spring arrived we launched into the work of our first garden on the red clay of our new home. We planted peas and greens and flowers, potatoes, beans, onions, and of course New Zealand Pear tomatoes, each with a generous scoop of compost to soften the heavy clay.
We mulched with leaves and straw until our hay supplier fooled us with a load of hay baled wet, and we suddenly had an abundance of garden mulch. The hay was too dusty to shake out, so we set out whole bales, carefully separated flakes of hay to lay around the tomatoes and enjoyed the satisfaction seeing the plants, from seed so carefully carried on our journeys, tucked in with a whole summer to grow in one place.
It was not many days later that the satisfaction turned to puzzlement, and then concern, and then the garden became so depressing that it was hard to walk out for daily tending.
Concern started with the peas, actually. The plants we planted in the clay were beautiful, climbing the new pea fence with friendly and promising blossoms. But then we sidedressed the young plants with compost, and the leaves started crinkling.
The peas were tough, not very tasty, and they started crinkling as well. We began to wonder about mineral imbalances in the clay, or a problem with the seeds, and to help strengthen the plants we sidedressed each row generously with a second application of the compost that had been started almost a year earlier in a pile near the barn.
The plants kept flowering, their beautiful generous energy enlivening their corner of the garden, and we harvested a few handfuls of peas, enough for several meals with fresh pea pods on the vegetable tray. We called it a crop failure, none-the-less. The leaves grew more and more pinched, and then downy mildew appeared and we pulled the plants and considered the experience part of our learning curve, gardening in Virginia.
The tomatoes though, made it clear that something really unusual was happening in the garden. The tomato leaves contracted and turned into little leathery spikes of green on all our garden tomato plants. It was a metamorphose unlike anything I’d seen before, something tragic in feeling and depressing in form. Knowing for sure that there was something wrong in the garden, first we questioned the soil, and then we questioned the air, the water and the sun. What was going on?
We looked online and found pictures of tomato plants that matched ours, and we talked to every gardener we could. Oddly, my sister in Missouri was seeing the same thing happening in her garden. What could it be?
Virus? Didn’t really look like that. Mineral imbalance? Didn’t look like that, either. Reaction to insect damage? Nope, no evidence of insects. And then the shocking realization: our tomatoes looked exactly like the plants pictured with their reaction to the toxic chemical 2,4,D, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid.
What? Wasn’t that outlawed? Agent Orange?
Decades of deliberate avoidance of the chemical aisles in the lawn and garden supply stores had clearly blocked some important information from my mind. I just didn’t plan to come into contact with poisonous chemicals and assumed I wouldn’t.
“2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (usually called 2,4-D) is an organic compound with the chemical formulaC8H6Cl2O3. It is a systemic herbicide which selectively kills most broadleaf weeds by causing uncontrolled growth in them, but leaves most grasses such as cereals, lawn turf, and grassland relatively unaffected.
2,4-D is one of the oldest and most widely available herbicides in the world, having been commercially available since 1945, and is now produced by many chemical companies since the patent on it has long since expired. It can be found in numerous commercial lawn herbicide mixtures, and is widely used as a weed killer on cereal crops, pastures, and orchards. Over 1,500 herbicide products contain 2,4-D as an active ingredient.”
That was shocking. Over 1,500 products containing 2,4-D on the market, right now, every day being applied to lawns and roadsides and orchards and cereal crops and pastures and hayfields. And the vapors travel in drifting air. And I had allowed myself to live in a fool’s paradise, building compost piles and imagining rich crumbly soil and clean food.
Suddenly, everything became suspect. Were we living in toxic neighborhood? I was pretty sure the government wasn’t spraying along our roads, because I often hear industrious neighbors out on mowing machines, keeping the roadside trimmed.
Were neighbors in our new neighborhood spraying their yards with poison? What about the cattle pasture just beyond our tree line? Did the previous owner of our farm spray the pastures and sideyard where we had sited our garden? How long are modern herbicides toxic? Was it in our ground? In the hayfields ? Wait! Hayfields. The hay!
As innocent as any naïve traveler abroad, we had looked blindly at the beautiful hay fields and pastures here in Virginia. I had imagined that regular and steady mowing kept the acre upon acre of rolling storybook pastures we passed on the road to town so clean and well kept. I never seriously asked what now seems like a very obvious question: Why aren’t there any weeds out there?
We don’t really know the cause of what happened in our garden. Peas, tomatoes, beans and potatoes all displayed signs of distress, the beans and tomatoes most dramatically. Peas, tomatoes, and beans were in contact with compost, the potatoes were not. Tomatoes, potatoes and beans were all heavily mulched with hay, the peas were not. The tomatoes in the stock tank on the deck and in the back yard were planted with compost, no hay mulch at all, and they were severely affected. Right next to them, in pots of commercial organic potting soils, beautiful normal tomato plants were growing. They had neither compost nor hay.
Could the manure from horses that ate hay with herbicide contamination be toxic still? On line research led us to sources suggesting that 2,4,-D degrades in soil rather quickly, with a half life of just over six days. I also read that people get sick handling herbicides, and I read that chemicals can travel through the animal into the human food chain. And yet people keep using these products with 2,4,D, spreading it all over our counties and towns and cities. How long would it be before the soil in our garden was safe? Is the research that promotes the use of toxic herbicides to be trusted? What about the Environmental Protection Agency? Who is looking out for the earth? Who is looking out for us?
And since here in our home garden we don’t really know what happened to the plants, other questions arise.
Are the tomatoes safe to eat? What about the seed? Is all our compost toxic? What about the horses? They seem all right, but has something happened to them that we can’t see?
Needing to act on something, we acted on the assumption that we needed to stop feeding the hay we had bought.
And hurrah for Craigslist. Within days of making that decision we found a farmer selling organic hay and got some into the barn. It felt very good to find a haymaker committed to clean hay, a kindred spirit with his own tales of toxic contamination that support the decisions he makes farming without toxic chemicals. It feels very good to feed clean hay to our animals, and we are composting the remainder of the old hay with plans to let the piles sit for years, maybe forever, before we use it on a garden.
What doesn’t feel good is that decades of organic gardening had dimmed my vigilance, and we were taken in by a friendly and personable farm neighbor selling hay. We forgot to think, forgot to ask.
Decades of reading labels and seeking organic products in the marketplace, study of the Organics Industry and the federal organic standards, — all in the past. We got lazy buying hay and let our guard down. Is it possible that toxic chemicals are now so much in use that it is not possible to grow a clean garden?
Now, living with the damage on our homestead, we read that publicists and activists in organic agriculture have known about this problem for quite a number of years. https://extension.umd.edu/learn/gardener-alert-beware-herbicide-contaminated-compost-and-manure
While we were in the desert growing tomato plants in pots on the porch, gardeners and farmers in the field were documenting the same herbicide damage that we discovered only this year in our garden. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/pest-control/herbicide-damage-zmgz13fmzsto?PageId=1
Now, certain that our plants have been poisoned, and admitting we will never be certain of the source of the poison, what to do to mitigate?
We continued in the best way we knew, collaborating with organic farmers, making compost and applying biodynamic preparations, engaging in activities to strengthen the soil to give the plants the best possible place to stand. https://www.biodynamics.com/ And we began to look for things we could do specifically to counter the poisonous assault.
Our research led us to fungi, and, having read of the power of the oyster mushroom to break down toxic chemicals, we toured a mushroom farm and met with very knowledgeable growers who inspired us to set off on the mushroom journey. http://northcovemushrooms.com/
Significantly, we found with these growers that behind the interest in mushrooms lay scientific education and experience in environmental contamination remediation. http://www.appalachiangrown.org/listing/show/2883
Because we already knew the importance of fungi to soil, it was only the next step that our eyes be opened to the possibilities with this primary ability of the mushroom to decompose, to breakdown substance.
To deliberately work with this power of decomposition seems a good step, tending a homestead compromised by modern times on a troubled earth. We plan to buy some oyster mushroom spawn and try to establish that healing force in our compost piles and in our garden. We have begun to test the compost with tomato seedlings, to see what natural forces have already done to break down the toxins. And we continue to make compost, now with hay we trust is clean, with manure from animals no longer eating suspect hay, and with hope for the future.
Clearly, corporate and government promoters of chemical agriculture offer biased information on the effects of the chemicals they promote. What am I eating when I eat a bean from our stunted bean row? What effect, invisible to me, did the contaminated hay have on our livestock? We will never know, the research is not in, but we will watch everything ever more carefully in the future.
Mother Nature is on our side. We are starting to see signs of recovery in the garden, new leaves growing wider, blossoms seeming less pinched.
Yes, our plants are deformed, still our plants are growing. They are sending forth flowers and setting fruit. It is not robust fruit. The tomatoes are small, and many are rotting before turning red, but the plants keep trying, and I am saving seed. I will plant that seed next year, and watch to see if the damage to the plant this year appears in next year’s plants. We will keep planting, keep watching, keep saving seed.