Cheap Tomatoes

A friend at work told me that she wanted to start growing her own vegetables as a way to cut down on her grocery bill.  I encouraged her to start a small garden but I warned her that she probably would not be saving money by doing so.  She was not to be deterred.  She had done the math!  She would grow tomatoes in hanging baskets that cost $19 each.  Since each plant would produce 10 pounds of tomatoes her cost would be just $2 per pound.  Any fool could see that was cheaper than what Whole Foods was charging for a pound of organic tomatoes.

After a couple of weeks I checked in on my friend to see how her hanging tomatoes were doing.  She was pretty pleased with all things horticultural, but she was a little dismayed about how much she had spent.  The two hanging bags set her back $38, soil and tomatoes were another $20.  Then she had to figure out a way to hang them.  Since her patio did not get enough sun, she fashioned a rolling support out of galvanized pipe and fittings and a patio umbrella stand.  This cost her another $100.  My friend had learned a very important lesson.  Gardening can provide you with many things.  Unfortunately cheap food is not usually one of them.

I am happy to report that my friend did not allow her initial start up costs to deter her gardening efforts.  In fact, she has now expanded her gardening operation and is successfully growing herbs and veggies in giant pots in her yard.  She no longer tries to justify her hobby as a money saver.  She now gardens just for the fun of it!  She is growing her own food, spending time out doors, reading books and talking to other gardeners.  She has definitely caught the gardening bug.

A lovely pot of chard and parsley at Thompson and Hanson’s in River Oaks

Watching my friend get so excited about gardening put me in a reflective mood.  I started wondering, “What is it about watching things grow that makes me, and countless others like me, kind of nutty?”  What exactly does gardening provide that makes us return to this pursuit year after year?  I know this, gardening provides me with a link to my past.  As I get older being connected to my history gets more and more important.  I also get the majority of my exercise and all of my sore muscles and back aches in the garden.  It gives me a place to express my creativity and it provides me with a window into the wonder of life.  Gardening relaxes me, humbles me and keeps me ever watchful and hopeful. It is place where I gather and pass on my knowledge.  I have talked to many gardeners and they all seem to agree.  The garden is a place where we invest our time, talent and resources.  We all receive many gifts from the garden.  Unfortunately, cheap food is not generally one of them.

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Honeydew (and we ain’t talking melons)

Have you ever felt a light mist fall upon you as you stood under a tree on a summer day?  The next time you feel this, stick your tongue out, and taste it.  It is sweet. This sweet tasting liquid falling from the sky isn’t manna, it is aphid poo!  Well, not poo exactly, but it is excrement from the back side of an aphid.  Honeydew!  That’s right, honeydew is aphid poo!

Aphids have modified mouth parts that allow them to drill directly into the phloem and extract all of the rich carbohydrates and sugars that it needs.  Once they “tap a vein” there is so much food available under so much pressure from the plant that the phloem just passes right through their little bodies and right out of their butts!  So now that you are completely grossed out, stick your tongue back in your mouth and ask “What do honeydew and aphid anuses have to do with gardening?”  Well, a lot actually.

Aphids on a fallen rosebud

Aphids on a fallen rosebud

I first learned about this interesting little tidbit in “Applied Physiology of Horticultural Plants”.  This fascinating course is taught by a true Master of Horticulture, Dr.  Leo Lambardini (

Our class was discussing how to get a pure sample of the contents of the phloem for analysis. Since the phloem is a VERY TINY internal structure of a plant it is basically impossible to mechanically “tap” into it and get a pure, unadulterated sample of plant juice.  So a brilliant horticulturist solved this difficult problem by applying something he had observed in his study of aphids.  Since aphids attack a plant in the same way that a mosquito attacks you, this scientist decided to gas an infested plant with CO2 to kill the little aphids.  Then, he snipped the bodies away from the mouth parts that were still in the plant.  This gave him literally thousands of “straws” from which to gather samples.  Brilliant!  I love it when someone figures out how to make something useful out of something basically useless.  And …  Let’s face it, aphids are basically useless to us gardeners.

If you have spent much time in the garden, you are probably very familiar with aphids.  These tiny little pests are quite common and quite annoying.  They have the cutest little knick name: plant lice.  Aphids do more damage to agricultural and horticultural plants than any other species of insect.  Aphid infestation can cause decreased growth rates, mottled leaves, stunted growth and even death.  In fact, one species of aphid almost entirely destroyed the wine industry in the 1870’s.  They also contributed to the spread of the “Late Blight” fungus that caused the Irish potato famine.  And, let’s not forget the honeydew.  So not only can aphids harm your plants, they can harm you as well.

And what about that honeydew?  Turns out, it is harmful too.  Lots of various molds and fungi that attack plants grow very well in honeydew.  Have you ever seen that black stuff covering your crepe myrtle’s leaves?  Well, that is sooty mold and it is growing on the honeydew left behind by the aphids.

Luckily, aphids are easy to control.  There are a lot of chemicals that you can spray.  But spraying chemicals today is frowned on by all of the shoppers at Whole Foods and by most of the regular viewers of Oprah. Luckily, there are many ecologically friendly alternatives.  The easiest is water.  Once you start seeing signs of an infestation, get your water hose and spray the plant.  If the impact doesn’t kill them, falling onto the ground usually will.  There are also bio-friendly pesticides that have show some promise.  Neem and Lantana are two of the best.  Also, don’t forget that lady bugs LOVE aphids.  So, go to your local nursery and buy a container of ladybugs and set them free in the area of the aphids.  They are a natural predator of aphids and do very good job ridding your plant of these pests.  Besides, who doesn’t love lady bugs?

Aphids cause untold dollars worth of damage to agricultural crops each year.  They also cause problems for the gardener.  With a little observation and a little effort the home gardener can control these pests.  So the next time you find yourself getting “misted” under one of your trees, or all of the leaves on your crepe myrtle turn black, head for the hose or unleash the lady bugs!