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The Economy of Resilience

Updated: Oct 2, 2021

Stressed purple paste tomatoes display cresting, banding and contorting typical of 'fasciation'

As happens at this time of year, when the weather changes and the sodden garden needs more attention than usual, I am jolted awake at 3 a.m. by a tight and hot pain in my solar plexus. Predictably, I am worrying about how best to wind down the season in stages while juggling transplant of winter seedlings, and also see to any canning, drying, and preserving that needs to be done. Over the course of too few days, the economy of resilience hangs in the balance of things within and outside of my control.

My opinion about the quality of my pain is that it differs from the harvest season anxiety felt by generations of food gardeners before me.

I have learned, through inherited wisdom and numerous conversations with beautifully aged country nonnas and other such experts, that their late summer pain wasn't born of the elevated and extended fight-or-flight stress-induced floods of cortisol that affect my urbanized climate change preoccupied person, rather they endured a seasonal and time-limited exhaustion shared with family and community. An exhaustion that was, in most cases, followed by a restorative winter season of relative calm. Many other factors enabled this beautiful balance, but balance it was nonetheless.

The tomato canning pot bubbling away in the outdoor kitchen, long into the moonlit autumn night

During my season of relative anxiety and admitted imbalance, I choose simply, the path of least resistance and stress. I give up on sleep, get out of bed, and start doing whatever thing is at the top of my list. Today it was halving, marinating, oven-drying, and freezing the Sungold tomatoes that have accumulated by the quart-load in the fridge and in the cool of the garage.

Tomatoes have dominated my week. Outdoors, I have been stripping vines of dead foliage, inviting the waning sun to ripen the last of the fruit. This will continue past first frost around back, where the covered inside corner patio creates a lovely heat sink for dozens of indeterminate tomato plants growing up into the 10-12 foot-high canopy, sheltered from the wind and kept warm(ish) at night be the radiated warmth of the stone patio pavers.

Sweeter than sunshine Sungold tomatoes dried in the oven to the 'plump raisin' stage

All but one of the many varieties of vining tomatoes that I grew from seed performed heroically through three record-breaking heat waves this season, losing almost all of their foliage during the first and most intense of the waves, but recovering fairly well afterward. Three rows of aging Sungold vines with eerily naked midsections but leafy tops heavy still with green fruit, remind me of those deadly hot days in June and July.

32 eight-ounce containers of oven-dried Sungold tomatoes tucked away for winter enjoyment

Tomato fruit set was less in general this year. The consensus among my gardening community is that, the deficits were a direct result of extreme heat. Some varieties of tomatoes perform admirably under heat stress, but others I am told become sterile at high temperatures. It seems that no amount of coaxing or amorous attention from pollinators, will make a difference.

Every single one of the Midnight Roma tomato plants that I grew from seed, responded drastically and unfavourably to the extreme heat. Of all of my tomato varieties, I most wanted to harvest and enjoy the gorgeous bull's blood red and purple Midnight Roma tomatoes with their inky purple/black wash. But it was not to be.

Inedible but interesting to observe, Midnight Roma plants display major deformation of fruit, tissue and flowers

I can’t say with certainty what the heat-triggered deformity/malformation was, but I am quite sure it was something called fasciation. Fasciation is an affliction in which cylindrical tissue becomes elongated perpendicularly (side to side) to the primary direction of growth, which causes a ribbon-like affect that can also look like a cockscomb. Fasciated flowers can become petrified-like, closing entirely, and the fruit itself contorts in very odd ways, long after the heatwave has passed. Admittedly there is a chance that this packet of seeds was somehow compromised in-transit before they reached me, but I tend to dismiss that idea because the seeds were grown in the same seed-starting medium as the predecessors, and the seedlings appeared to be fine until they reached about one-foot in height and were struck by extreme heat.

There is of course a chance that, because Midnight Roma tomatoes are a new varietal, available to me later in the season than during the requisite mid-February/early March indoor seed-starting window, they were somehow disadvantaged by a slightly later start. I can't imagine this as an explanation, but because they were outliers, also cannot rule it out.

Using a damp chopstick to pick up tiny tomato seeds one at a time, for planting

I can't say with certainty that the maladies were heat-triggered either I suppose, because my garden isn't a laboratory experiment. My intuition and observations tell me it was heat. Also, since I could not see or feel any other atypical environmental or chemical changes at the time, and a few other seed-grown tomato varieties showed brief but fleeting symptoms of fasciation (ribboning, cresting) on few and random leaves, I am confident in my conclusion.

I will try growing Midnight Romas again next year, from seed, alongside all other varietals, and see what happens.

The very good news though relates to resilience, and resilience was abundant among every single one of my grafted tomato varieties, and also my grafted eggplants.

I have written before about grafting, in relation to my dwarf fruit tree orchard. The same basic principle applies to tomatoes or any plant.

Grafted heirloom Thorburn's Terra Cotta tomatoes companion planted with Genovese basil grown from seed

Put simply, grafting is the process whereby growers or experienced gardeners attach the below-ground ‘rootstock’ of a plant or tree, with the above-ground ‘plant’ part of a plant or tree. This is done to design a combination plant or tree that has any number of specific characteristics which may include overall growth habit and size, size and timing of fruit set, ability to absorb specific nutrients from soil, resistance to disease and drought, and many other factors.

The process of attaching ‘rootstock’ or under-ground stem, to the ‘scion’ or above-ground plant part or stem is called ‘grafting’. My mental imagery of the concept is entirely unscientific and a bit creepy, but it helps me theorize grafting at its very basic; namely — a ‘designer’ person whose feet and ankles support the entire body of another person whose DNA is similar enough that it won’t be rejected. Weird right?

Horizontal graft of rootstock and Sweet Million Tomato scion seen clearly above the soil line

Grafting can also be done well above the soil level, on trees, whereby scions of one variety of a type of tree are grafted onto the trunk or branch of a host tree. Mental imagery sees these compilations as ‘bionic beings’ of sorts, with feet, trunk and limbs from many compatible donors all grafted together to create another sort of stronger, faster, smarter, more adaptable ’super plant’.

I have several dwarf fruit trees in my garden, most of which were grafted using the most basic method of grafting (a single below-ground rootstock grafted to a single above-ground variety of tree), but also two that represent the more complex method ( a single below-ground rootstock grafted to several above-ground varieties of trees). I touched on grafting briefly in a previous post called ‘The Littlest Orchard’.

Small but voluptuous grafted San Marzano tomatoes still thriving under cover of my south-facing patio garden

Grafted trees and plants will most certainly become part of the package of agricultural and horticultural solutions offered to address the detrimental affects of climate change. I predict this hopefully, based on my experience this summer, with tomatoes.

I grew tomatoes from seed — choosing primarily, varieties which were historically healthy and productive in our home garden. For comparison purposes, I pre-ordered a dozen or so grafted varieties from a local nursery. To be honest, my initial interest was to experiment with larger volumes of fruit per square foot for friends and family with small gardens, but three record-breaking heatwaves soon turned my primary focus to one of resilience and drought tolerance.

Green Zebra, Golden Rave, Early Cascade, Sungold tomatoes grown from seed

Like people, plants are weakened and often sickened by stress. I have seen over and over again in my garden that, stressed plants are prone to disease and pest infestation. Overnight it seems, environmentally stressed tomatoes can change from beautiful, healthy, productive creatures, into disease, pathogen, or pest riddled specimens incapable of supporting offspring. By all accounts, grafted tomatoes are markedly more disease resistant and about 50% more productive than non-grafted tomatoes. Fifty percent seems a low estimate to me.

The barrier to entry currently, may be price. Grafted tomato plants cost much more than non-grafted seedlings, as much as four times more, where I live. As with most things though, demand should increase both competition and supply, which should work in combination to lower prices.

In this part of the world, ‘Mighty Matos’ are the flagship grafted tomato and vegetable ‘brand’ so to speak. Mighty Mato plant tags appear in nurseries in the Western US and in Western Canada, which I assume could indicate that levels of licensing, proprietary arrangements, currency exchange, duties, transport and such, factor into retail pricing. I did try to reach a local wholesale distributor of Mighty Mato tomatoes, but was unable to speak with anyone. Legions of garden writers credit Log House Plants Nursery in Oregon, with pioneering the grafted vegetable revolution in North America.

Grafted Sweet Million and 42-Day tomatoes, happy and productive even after three heat waves

To determine the true monetary cost per specific variety of tomato fruit produced on grafted plants versus those produced on non-grafted plants, one would have to conduct scientific method field trials over time.

The results of such trials would be of interest primarily to farmers and market gardeners whose livelihood depends on profitability; but what about those of us whose livelihood — by definition ‘means of support or subsistence’ — depends on our ability to grow food for our families?

The answer to that question varies by circumstance. I can say without question personally, based on non-scientific anecdotal evidence related to our particular environmental, economic, and social circumstance related to our unique livelihood that, grafted tomatoes more than paid for themselves this summer.

Grafted tomatoes far left & right in pots, and centre in trough -- much more robust by comparison post-heat waves

We live in a small community on the so-called ‘raincoast’ of the Pacific Northwest in a temperate rainforest blessed by almost 100-inches (2.5 metres) of precipitation annually. Oddly, and incredibly, we have no sustainable water supply of our own. When the small lake that holds our mountain watershed-fed supply runs low during the summer, we purchase piped-in water from the city to which we are adjunct. For a great number of people with gardens, the cost of that growing season water exceeds $1000 per month.

When this community was first settled as a cottage community across the harbour from the big city, nobody was thinking about climate change surely, and until 15 years ago when residential water meters were installed and monitored, water was more-or-less free. Since then, consumption has declined on a per-capita basis overall, but population growth and climate change are kicking that offset in the butt.

Tiny fragile leaves of a grafted spoon tomato plant still hanging on, even after three heat waves

If I am honest with myself and with you, I must admit that growing our own food is a lifestyle choice — more an act of defiance and rebellion than an act of resilience or survival. I am blessed by many things, not the least of which is an ability to buy fresh, locally-grown organic produce year-round. I am privileged enough to trial tomatoes grown from seed versus grafted tomatoes, knowing that I can pop down to the market to buy some if all plants fail to produce fruit. But what if I couldn’t?

If I had extremely limited funds, limited time, and limited land resources with which to grow tomatoes for my family, and I also considered the anecdotal hindsight of the 2021 growing season, I would absolutely grow resilient varieties of tomatoes from seed — but I would also invest in as many grafted tomato plants as I could afford. The grafted tomatoes would be of the indeterminate vining type and the fruits would be relatively small and/or meaty so that I could dry them for freezing, or dehydrate them for pantry storage. With all bases covered, I would sleep well.

Fire-roasting San Marzano tomatoes to loosen skins before hot water-processing in glass jars

My reasons for including grafted tomatoes in my garden planning are many and various, ranging from the cost of water, the cost of time spent fussing over and caring for stressed tomatoes grown from seed (both mine and those grown for family and friends — it was unexpected and exhausting), the cost to my mental and physical health due to fatigue and worry, the potential cost of purchasing large quantities of organic heirloom tomatoes at market to off-set crop failure at home, and the cost of ignorance of the realities of climate change.

I am currently exploring ways in which to bulk harvest rainwater from the roof of our rancher, which due to its comparatively large footprint (compared to two or three-level homes) diverts somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 US gallons of precipitation annually (calculators vary by roofing material and roof pitch), into the rain gutters. As righteous as it may be to harvest rainwater in 60-gallon rain barrels placed at each corner downspout, they don’t help much at all during months of little or no rain.

Blanching and skinning San Marzanos before hot water-processing in glass jars

Like so many of our neighbours, whose homes and gardens were established 50-75 years ago , we cannot simply stop watering all but our food gardens during the summer. To do so would put entire micro ecosystems at risk, which would in turn weaken macro systems, which would create a community-level environmental crisis, which would impact the entire region. Realistically, we cannot stop watering any more than we can perpetuate wasteful habits. We must instead create and undertake transition plans, and stick to them. Transition may be uncomfortable, costly, time-consuming, even painful, but we owe no less to future generations.

Here at home, we are doing what we can in stages, as we can afford and manage with available time and human resources — replacing lawns with pollinator turfs and/or expanded beds, replacing non-productive ornamental and annual plants with native and/or productive perennials, converting broadcast irrigation with drip systems, mulching with perennial ground covers, designing swales and rain gardens, and incorporating as many other permaculture principles as possible. I fell behind schedule this summer, but have big plans for spring. My goal is to demonstrate that it can be done in an established, highly-conservative, design-restricted urban neighborhood. If it can be done here, I have high hopes that it can be done anywhere.

Horizontal graft of rootstock with its Spoon Tomato scion seen clearly above the mulch, just below side shoot

Thankfully, plant breeders are producing resilient varieties of plants and trees that will help us navigate climate change, and thankfully, various levels of government are slowly finding the courage and will to legislate environmentally-beneficial changes to bylaws and building codes. Sadly, we didn’t start sooner, but it is what it is, and if past crisis are any indication of the will and potential of the people’s influence on the market economy, we will get through this.

Purists may argue the ethics and/or merit of grafting and/or breeding for resilience, against the principles of growing native and wild species, and mitigating growing environments through mimicking resilient systems found in nature. In theory and in a perfect world, I would agree, just as I embrace the ethos of permaculture overall.

Homegrown: Sungold, Sweet Million, Spoon tomatoes, arugula, radish, mustards, with Norland potato crabcakes

However, like hundreds of millions of people globally, I live in an urban environment with established infrastructure and ecosystems, and do not have the elements of absolute or partial compliance at my disposal. For these reasons, practicing, photographing, and writing about urban permaculture and plant-based diets is my vocation of choice. I am doing my best to affect change with the tools that I have, with an intention to live a beautiful, productive, healthful, sustainable, environmentally-considerate life. For sure it is a learning curve, and absolutely I misstep. But I share what I learn, enjoy an increasingly balanced life, and sleep lightly on my pillow; at least I do when I'm not worried about my tomatoes.

I encourage you and those you love and influence, to consider all options, including resilient varietals and grafted heirloom vegetables, fruit, berry and medicinal/culinary herbs and plants, in planning your food garden. For the most part, we form beneficial new habits only when we are successful and happy in their practice. Of course then, I wish you success.

Until next week, happy gardening!

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