Heirloom Gardener Blogs >

Food Not Bought

Which Rock Star Plants Should You Grow to Maximize Your Garden Yield?

IMG_3444

We all get so exited each winter when the seed catalogs start to arrive. I know not everyone grows from seeds and if you grow from starts you will be limited by what you can find locally. So, the thought of having 1000’s of types of seeds at your fingertips is quite the thrill. We value some catalogs over others but we sift through them all like we are brides planning our weddings. With each flip of a page, a new hope is born. This means there is…

• hope that we will get out of the cold winter,
• hope that our yards will turn green once again,
• hope that spring flowers are not that far away,
• hope that we will once again taste the food coming out of our own gardens.

Have you been looking for the right mix of plants to grown? With so many seeds to choose from it is hard to pick what makes the final cut and gets into your garden.  

For many years, I picked my plants considering all sorts of factors. One year I planted an international garden picking plants, with the help of my then 6-year-old son, as we went around the atlas from area of the world to area of the world. This was a lot of fun but frankly it did not produce a lot of food. These cool sounding plants, did not do well in our microclimate in Missouri. The plants missed their home soil, sun and biology. I learned a lot that year about the power of growing something locally adjusted. 

One year I picked plants by the coolness of their description and story. I looked for the plants that sounded like they came from the coolest, most adventurous background. Often the plants worked in native reserves or in war-torn countries. This method did not produce a lot of food from my backyard. 

I finally learned that I really had to find out what worked well right where I was living. I needed to know what liked our sun, soil, biology and even our pollinators. I started asking people what worked the best for them. I asked farmers, market vendors, friends, and I even went so far to call up Baker Creek and ask them which seeds did the best for them in the Ozark area. 

IMG_3445

The more I tried these locally, tried and true plants, the higher my yield got. Each year I started to track what worked well:

• which eggplants did better than others,
• which beans had a better yield without being stingy,
• which tomatoes put out more tomatoes without succumbing to the expected diseases,
• which herbs put out the most leaves,
• which cucumbers seemed to last the longest.

The Key was to  keep records of what worked, then make sure the ones that worked the best were my go to picks for the next year. It was kind of like locking in a puzzle piece. I knew, for sure, that Blue Lake Pole Beans would be my Pole Bean of choice. I knew that Rosa Bianca was my eggplant I could grow most successfully all around. I knew the Ivan were, by far, my strongest Tomato.  I also knew I needed some early determinates to balance off the late harvest date for the Ivan Tomatoes.

So, my suggestion to you is do your research and keep really good notes each year. Make maps of where you plant each plant in your garden beds. Make notes as they grow about yield, strength of the plant, size and other characteristics of note.  Pick your winners and stick to them year after year. Once you have your rock stars in your garden then you can experiment with new names, great stories and impulse buys. Each time you find another Rock Star add it to your next year’s lineup. Eventually you will get a core set of plants that works the best for you, produces the food your family wants to eat, and gives you a successful gardening experience.  

Now go out there and get working on identifying your Rock Stars. 

The Ivan Tomato Goes from Indiegogo to Farmers Market

Dragonfly

Saving the Ivan took many steps.  In the last blog, I outlined how the team was put together for our first year. The next step was to figure out how to build a buzz for a tomato that hardly anyone knew existed.  As a social media marketer, I knew we had to use social media.  We need funding so an Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign was a great way to go.  We believed that if we could get the Ivan’s story out there, people would connect with it on some level and want to support this fabulous tomato. 

20150626_141028000_iOS

A village came together to make our Indiegogo Movie.  I had some friends that all put their energy into the film.  A film maker choreographed and filmed, a photographer handed us 19 gigs of pictures after the shoot, and a videographer jumped in to help the filmmaker.   My sister, an actor and writer, helped make sure the movie script was effective. Some friends who have a fantastic band, Dirtfoot, gave us the rights to use one of their songs as our music.  This all led to August when we filmed on Jordan’s farm during some of the hottest days of the summer. 

I began to build the social media buzz with the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project Facebook page, create a website and connect with other like-minded groups.  I spent months working on PR coverage of the story.  We managed to get the story into several media outlets including: Feast, Vox, The Columbia Missourian, KBIA, The Slow Food Newsletter, Inside Columbia Magazine, Post Gazette Pittsburg, and the News Tribune in Jefferson City.   Our suspicions were confirmed that when folks herd about the story of the Ivan they were willing to help us build our buzz. 

We launched the Indiegogo in November running it through New Years.   Our goal was $10,000, yet we only raised about $4,400 from 111 backers.   The good thing is that we raised enough to cover our campaign costs and get our first season of plants started.  We also got Ivan seed packages out to over 100 people in 27 states and 5 countries.   We did not meet our goal of having funding to build a full size green house and operation on our own property.  However, the exposure we got was a huge help and got the ball rolling. 

We continued to sell seeds, on line, through our webpage at www.victorygardeners.com.  We grew plants for our first season as a nursery and ended up offering 12 types of tomatoes, 10 types of peppers, 17 types of herbs and some decorative flowers.   We had a booth at Earth Day, the Columbia Farmers Market and the Baker Creek Planting Festival. We learned a lot. 

At the end of the seasons we had sold a lot of our plants including over 800 Ivan tomato plants.  We had covered our costs and had a little money left over to contribute towards building a small greenhouse in my backyard.  The green house was made from re-claimed windows reducing our expenses to the framing, roofing and accoutrements.  We counted our first season a success.

8 Important Things We Learned:

• We may love flowers and decorative ornamentals but that is not our market.
• Growing plants is a huge amount of work and takes every bit of time and energy you have available.
• When you are responsible for 1000’s of plants you cannot slack off, at all.
• Transplanting time is exhausting and expensive, invite friends to help, bribe them with free plants.
• Use great soil and organic fertilizers and get the best results.
• Tarping a trailer is not easy and not doing it correctly can result in losing 100’s of plants in about 25 seconds.
• Pay extra for better space at plant shows.
• Tell your story as often as possible and to everyone who will listen.

The Baker Creek Tarp Disaster

I will now share with you the story about going to Baker Creek Planting Festival and our tarp disaster.  We were so excited and looking forward to being vendors.   I had gone for years as a shopper and enjoyed it immensely while acquiring unique and wonderful plants.  The sale was in early May, right at the beginning of planting season.   We had requested the lowest cost booth to keep the expenses down. We had to pay for our transport, food, lodging etc.   We figured we would make the best of it and learn all we could from our first exposure.

The sale was on a Sunday and Monday. So, we did the Farmers Market in Columbia, Missouri on the Saturday morning for the biggest plant sale weekend of the season.  Then we packed up as many plants as we could fit in Becky’s trailer and tarped it as best we could. The trailer had two levels so the bottom level was covered by a hard-protective layer. The top level was covered by the tarping. We had never tarped a trailer before and did not really have all the right straps and bungies. We used what we had and figured we had it nice and tight. 

We left at about 8:30 pm so it was just starting to get dark.  I was following the truck in my Van with hanging baskets, camping gear and more plants.  We were about 30 minutes into the drive, at about Versailles Missouri, when I saw the tarp begin to flap a little bit.  I called up to the truck and told them about the motion.  We stopped and checked it out. It seemed tight. We figured it was OK.  

We drove off with me keeping an eye on the tarping.  About a minute later stuff just started pelting my car. Bungies, bits of tarp, soil, plant shavings, and plastic containers all came flying at me.  I called them again yelling for them to pull over.  We pulled over and assessed the damage. We figured we lost several 100 plants but couldn’t see in the dark to really know.  One of the top supports had collapsed on the bottom level mostly crushing whatever was under it. At least 2/3 of the top level looked like something out of a science fiction flick. It looked like something had come along and ripped everything right out of the soil, leaving some stems and mangled plastic. 

This was a huge blow to everyone. We worked so hard to grow those plants. My first fear was that it was the Ivan’s.  It was like my heart sunk, the rest of the long drive was done in silent sadness.  It was no one’s fault. We all needed to learn this lesson.   The next morning, in the light, we were able to assess the damage.  Thankfully we didn’t lose any Ivan’s. However, we did lose about 300 pepper plants and about the same number of herbs and flowers.  

I guess the lesson to learn is that when you start your own business, and especially when you are working with farming, you can’t project how things will go.  You can’t possibly control everything, and you must learn as you go. However, you can make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

We managed to focus on the plants we had at the sale. All things considered, we did very well. Our booth was at a less than ideal location in the back corner.  We should have paid more for a better booth space. We sold many plants and found an audience that was truly interested in this new tomato. People bought many Ivan plants and enjoyed our story and our mission. We learned many lessons about how to succeed in this environment and we had a lot of fun meeting new people.  We look forward to applying the many lessons learned as we continue on our journey to Save the Ivan Tomato and other heirloom plants and bring them back to our gardens and tables.

How I Saved the Ivan Tomato - It's all in the Story

Firstly, this is not a story that can be told in one blog post, so you’ll have to come with me on this ride to hear pieces and part of the Journey.

 From Faculty to Farmer

When this all began, I was working as a professor for a local all-women private college, where I had been happily teaching for five years. My area of expertise was business and marketing. So why am I writing about gardening, you might ask? As a dear friend once observed, I was half boardroom executive and half homesteader and she was happy to know both of us. My executive side was unraveling the world of social media marketing and communication and teaching it to excited young minds. The homesteader side was canning food and growing record yields out of my backyard beds. 

I knew the Ivan was a great plant and I knew that I had not seen the family of its origin for several years now.  I had just finished teaching a class on Small Business Startups and figured Why Not Me, Why Not the IVAN!  I knew starting a business was no easy task — it took money, time, effort, etc., etc.  At about this time I found out my college was cutting our program and releasing all non-tenure track faculty. I had a few months left in the academic year and then I would be out on my own, pitchfork and all. 

This is when I decide I had drunk the entrepreneurial Kool-Aid not just talked the talk. Rarely when you consider doing a business venture do things fall into place naturally, yet the Ivan seemed to. Usually there are many hurdles and many compromises as you ride the waves. 

In the agricultural business world, we are looking at even more complications such as acts of nature and opportunities as well. There are grants, subsidies, legalities, regulations, taxes, and lots of other things to consider. The least of the issues were physical assets like greenhouses and land. 

I started to talk to friends about it and get the feelers out there. I didn’t ask people if they thought it could work; I just assumed it would. I talked to them about how they could help the mission of Saving the Ivan. I got a lot of excitement, especially from friends who had already grown the Ivan in their own yards. 

A couple of friends, Jordan Casey and Curtis Hess, had some of the assets we needed. They had strength, know-how, and even land. We decided to work together and the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project was born. They planted some of my plants out at Jordan’s Farm and the first seed tomatoes took root. They started chatting it up with other folks too.  The Momentum was building.

Within a few weeks I got a call from Jordan, he said they had been doing an odd job at a farm in Ashland. They got to talking with Becky at the farm, and it turned out this was the family who raised the Ivan. This is when we learned that the father of the family had passed and they had closed their family nursery.  They themselves were not even sure if they had seeds left. We had a meeting together and Ivan Tomato Rescue Project took on new motivation. Becky had the greenhouse, Jordan had land, Curtis had his passion for environmental issues, and I had the seeds and the knowledge of how to market and run a business.

10007475_927964497250739_2620731119499200730_n

Picture From Private Collection of Becky Whitworth

We first worked on the story. What was behind the Ivan, the family, their farm, their story? How long had they grown it, where did it come from, why was this a special tomato? The story had all the qualities of a winner: great tomato, long-term family heirloom, Midwest American roots, and a special surprise. 

The surprise was the story of a Vietnam vet who had struggled with PTSD. After many years of struggling to maintain balance he succumbed to a stroke. To help him rehabilitate, his daughters built him a green house, took trips to collect wild flower seeds, and watched mother earth in action. Over the years they built a nursery business and he re-connected the dots of his life.  He believed in the healing power of gardening. Over the years, other people came to the nursery to heal and help grown each year’s plants. This story told of a struggle that is not uncommon to many in our society. This story gave us even more reason to Save the Ivan. 

Stay tuned to the next blog post to learn how we saved a bank of seeds, ran an Indiegogo campaign, and branded the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project.

Why I Decided to Save the 'Ivan' Tomato

Laura Flacks-NarrolWhy did I decide to save a tomato, you ask? Well it’s a long story, so I will try to keep it short and to the point.  I have gardened for over 20 years in my suburban backyard.  I have grown plants for several reasons. I’ve grown for food, and I’ve grown for the pure wondrous joy of watching life happen. Some years I have had better crops than others, yet each year I have tried to learn things that improve my yield and gardening experience. As I have grown food I have preserved it and tried to keep a full pantry available of Food Not Bought.

After many years of growing tomatoes, I still had not had the bumper crop of over flowing tomatoes, like you hear people talk about. I rotated beds, kept high levels of organic materials; I even tried all the vogue tomatoes that were supposed to be a sure thing.  I tried heritage heirlooms and I even gave in and tried some hybrids.  Yet, tomato success was like an elusive dream that was always out of reach.  I used to get the $30 tomato, as I watched my glorious plants grow strong and then succumb to some disease, bugs or nutrient deficiencies.

So one spring, as I was buying yet another type of tomato to go into my overcrowded beds, I told the well-meaning farmer selling the plants of my tomato woes.  She said I should try her family tomato, the ‘Ivan.’ She said it had been grow in Missouri by her family for generations. She swore by it. I figured why not, and got one strong-looking ‘Ivan.’ 

This tomato, for me, represented success in so many ways.  I planted it and for some reason it seemed to be able to survive Missouri’s odd weather.  In one summer, we generally had flooding, drought, heat and cold.  Yet the ‘Ivan’ seemed to be OK with that.  Like most places we had lots of diseases that could take out a tomato plant in a flash, yet the ‘Ivan’ seemed to make it through most diseases while other plants died.  To top this off the ‘Ivan’ had a very large yield and grew an enormous plant usually topping off over 8 feet tall. 

tomato basket
Photo credit: Kate Kogut

They say if you save a life you save the world.  I saved a tomato, does that count?  Eight years after I grew my first ‘Ivan’ the ‘Ivan’ Tomato Rescue Project was born.  The family whose tomato it was went out of farming and I found myself with the last seeds.  Literally, these were the last seeds that I knew of. I searched online and found very little trace of the ‘Ivan.’  No one was selling seeds and no one had plants. 

I knew I could continue to save seeds and grow them in my garden.  I knew I could give a few plants to friends, as I always did, and could keep the success of the ‘Ivan’ to my little gardening world.  Or, I could save the ‘Ivan’ and make a difference for the food supply.

I took on the responsibility of saving the ‘Ivan’ and getting its strong genetics out into the world.  I had grown this tomato for enough years to know it was something special. I knew it was not just me, as I had received feedback from friends about their tremendous yield and happiness.  I was not the only person who had experienced challenges with growing tomatoes, and was happy to make a difference in people’s gardens, kitchens and pantries. 

Now, ‘Ivan’ has being grown by 100’s if not 1,000’s of households. It has been grown in 27 States and four countries. I saved the ‘Ivan.’  How did I save it, you ask? Well that is a story for my next blog post.