Thursday, August 21, 2014

Independence, self-sufficiency and tasty tomatoes: A new gardener's motivations

This summer Rick Bowers of Candler tasted for the first time a tomato he grew himself in his own no-till garden. The multitude of flavors bowled him over.

"It was like an epiphany that these tomatoes were so lush," he said. "The sensation was visceral because the flavor is so deep and rich. It kind of took me back to my childhood. I never anticipated it would be that great."

As Rick's garden coach, I was relieved that the tomatoes were well worth the wait—and the work—it took to grow them. Rick, who spends almost all of his mornings in the sky above the mountains as the owner/pilot of Asheville Hot Air Balloons, is not used to waiting to eat something he put in the ground two months ago. And he certainly isn't accustomed to spending a full day laying out a 750-foot garden in the middle of January, only to let it sit four months before the layers of organic matter had decomposed enough to be planted.

Photo of tomatoes at M R Gardens. By Vickie Burick

During my seventh visit of the year with him, we chatted next to his garden now sprawling with winter squash, cucumber and melon vines. He was eager to understand exactly why the tomatoes taste so much better than the ones he bought from the store. After several months of consulting with him, I was very used to his why questions—and greatly appreciated that he was trying to understand the reasoning behind what he was learning so he could embed the knowledge in his mind.

I explained that field tomatoes are usually picked when they are barely beginning to ripen, and only turn red in storage when treated with ethylene gas, which triggers ripening. If the tomatoes are instead left on the vine in the sun, the level of sugars are higher, as are the content of essential oils and other compounds that contribute to flavor. These volatile compounds start to evaporate, and the flavor begins to deteriorate, the moment the tomato is picked.

Commercial growers are often limited in the varieties they can grow due to practicalities of mechanical harvesting and transporting. Since gardeners only have to walk their tomatoes from the garden to their own kitchen, they have the luxury of growing flavorful heirloom varieties with soft textures that don't travel well in boxes over long distances.

Quality of soil also contributes to flavor. In the backyard garden, it's easy to maintain a high level of organic matter, which is the key ingredient in no-till gardens. Beneficial microbes in the decomposing organic matter unlock the high mineral content in the Appalachian red clay soil, turning the abundant nutrients into a form that is available for the plants to uptake.

Summer is perhaps the most satisfying season of garden coaching as my clients exclaim over the fruits of their work, but the rewards start early on, and in Rick's case, as soon as I sat down with him for the initial intake interview. The simple things intrigued him—that the corn kernels that we eat off the cob are also the seeds that we replant if we allow them to dry before removing from the cob. He was also surprised that popcorn is a similar plant to the corn he is well familiar with—it's just an extremely hard strain of Indian corn, high in protein and starch. The popcorn ear stays on the plant a lot longer than sweet corn, usually until first frost, when the kernels are completely dry and hard.

Photo of Megan at M R Gardens. By Vickie Burick
Rick appreciated that I bypassed complex scientific explanations and delivered information in layman's terms. "I'm not interested in the scientific names," he said. "I just want to know 'what do I need to do to grow the food.'"

His learning style makes him well suited for my hands-on garden coaching program. "The way I learn specifically is I have to understand the logical foundation behind it," Rick said. "If someone can help me build a logical conceptual framework, then I can translate the information in my head. This is hard to do by just reading. It's important that I not just read about it, but see it in practice and talk about it. Megan was quick to understand that about my learning style and quick to accommodate that."

He appreciated the student-directed educational approach that I use. "Megan was responsive to me and my questions without making me overly dependent," Rick said. "She wanted me to think." He was also impressed that I was actually doing the physical work with him. "She had said that she would be, but I didn't really anticipate that she was serious about it to that degree," he said.

By harvest season, Rick gained trust in a gardening method that he was at first skeptical about. "I'm more convinced that I don't have to do the traditional till garden and have good results," he said. Plus we didn't use any chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, he added.

Sharing a story about eating cucumbers, he said, "All I have to do is rinse that thing off and I didn't have to worry about pesticides or chemicals. It's such a freeing event to rinse it off with nice cool water and sink your teeth in it."

"I love the idea of being able to feel more self reliant," Rick said. "I love the idea that my property has a useful function instead of just a decorative function. It feels good in terms of stewardship of the property, in terms of ecology, and in terms of using the land for a higher purpose."

Rick still has a lot of yet unfulfilled dreams for his property. Just as I repeatedly encouraged his patience in not wanting to grow too many crops his first year (which he later appreciated during the abundance of harvest season), I also reminded him that it takes time to create the perfect weed-free, grass-less paradise that is only possible with a good amount of up-front work and time.

In the end, the independence he gained in gardening is the most fulfilling aspect to Rick. "That sense that I can take care of myself if I need to—and for my family if I need to—is incredible," he said.

Follow this blog and the M R Gardens Facebook page for information on low maintenance no-till gardening and edible landscaping. You can also hire Megan Riley to help you design a garden system that fits your lifestyle and needs, set up a management plan, and work with you in the garden. Schedule an appointment with Megan by calling 828.333.4151 or emailing