Arkansas farmers shaking up their gardens with African cukes 

Guy Lancaster is best known, perhaps, for his work editing the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, but the kiwano he's slicing into at his desk downtown is something new to Arkansas. The yellow-orange spiky skin of the fruit — a.k.a. the African horned cucumber (Cucumis metuliferus) — protects a thirst-quenching gelatinous, lime-green pulp. Lancaster grows it in his home garden, along with a little husked tomato (Physalis pruinosa) that, like the kiwano, is heat-tolerant.

Heat, you may have noticed, is what we have got this summer, in abundance. Most of Arkansas has kissed goodbye its Zone 7 standing in the hardiness charts and is now in the embrace of Zone 8. Gardeners and small farmers are looking to the world's hot zones to find plants that can thrive in our new climate.

Lancaster passed along a kiwano to his friend Robert Lashley, who with his wife, Peg, owns Willow Springs Garden Market on Willow Springs Road in South Little Rock and is interested in experimenting with heat-tolerant species.

"Climate change is here, isn't it?" says Lashley, a retired nurse and native of Yorkshire, England.

Lashley plants later in the growing season to avoid insects, so his kiwano have not yet set fruit, but the vines growing in his silty soil look healthy; the seeds "germinated like crazy," he said. The soil, on the other hand, is dry as dust; Lashley runs it through his fingers. "Maybe this is an aberration," he says, "but what if it isn't? The spigot from heaven has turned off."

Lashley is experimenting with another African species: The moringa tree (Molinga oleifera). It's known in Niger as a life-saver, offering valuable nutrition in a land of drought. So far, Lashley's hardiest "tree" is about 2 inches tall, but the species will grow 20 feet in a season "if it's happy," he said. He'll grow it as an annual, since as a Zone 9 plant it's unlikely to winter over — or at least we can hope it won't. The moringa is valued for its vitamin-packed leaves and seed pods; already, the tiny leaves are spicy like arugula and delicious. Only a few of his moringa trees are coming up; does that mean it's too hard to grow here? No, he said; he should have planted more seeds. "There are no failures in gardening," he said affably, "just experiments that don't work." (That would include the wasabi he tried to grow for Restaurant 1620, a plant he discovered needs wet conditions with little humidity.)

Lashley has been farming for six years; along with the familiar — apples, tomatoes, sunflowers, blueberries, fall squash — he's trying hand-pollinated pawpaw (a native cultivar) and jujube (Ziziphus zizyphus, an Asian tree) for their fruits, heat-loving red Malabar spinach, purslane (more omega 3 than flax seed, he says) and minutina, a green that loves cold as well as heat. Lashley, who farms only three acres, grows more unusual species because of competition with the bounty of big growers at the farmer's markets. "I decided to grow something a little bit different" even if it's not as productive, he said. And, he says, you get tastier fruits and vegetables when you don't grow for poundage: He uses a fraction of the nitrogen big farms use — his fish fertilizer has a nitrogen percentage of 2 compared to the 20 found in most fertilizers.

Steve Whiteaker of Double Helix Farms in Conway is a tomato devotee looking in all directions, not just south, for new varieties, including heat-tolerant. Whiteaker is of the opinion that the more varied the DNA in the garden, the better. Without genetic diversity, we're "opening ourselves up for calamity" (which could happen should American corn — which is genetically identical — ever meet a bug it couldn't fend off). Whiteaker himself loves "tinkering with genetics": He is "first and foremost a scientist. It's the science that motivates me to garden."

His Mendelian urges have sent him seed-hunting, from the University of California-Davis, which has "all the mutations that have ever turned up in a tomato for seed stock," to Siberia, to offer the 200 tomato varieties he sells (along with seeds for melons, grains and greens) on his website, www.doublehelixfarms.com.

Paradoxically, some of the Siberian varieties that carry a green flesh gene (or gf) are heat and humidity tolerant. The gf gene is a mutation that gives carbon and Cherokee purple and most other dark-skinned tomatoes their black color; Whiteaker said the mutation first appeared in the early 1950s, possibly from an American tomato grown in the Philippines. (The source is "kind of sketchy," he said.)

As all Arkansas tomato farmers know, this crucial ingredient of the BLT quits fruiting when temperatures reach the low 90s. That's because heat makes the pollen clump together, rather than drifting onto to the tomato flower's female parts. Whiteaker has found that the gf gene raises the temperature at which pollen starts to clump just a few degrees, giving him a couple more weeks growing time.

Whiteaker grows a lot of his tomatoes in pots in his own back yard. There, armed with scissors and tags and an electric toothbrush, he vibrates the pollen from one plant's flower and applies it to the female part of another, with the goal of creating new varieties. He's working on one tomato, an Arkansas Traveler that carries both the gf gene for heat tolerance and another gene that produces anthocyanin for its antioxidant properties. The result is a purple-topped pink that's extraordinary to look at and one "that's pretty darn healthy to eat."

Whiteaker says he's catering to the seed collector. "Tomato people are obsessed," Whiteaker says. "If you don't believe me, go to the Tomatoville message board. It has 10,000 members."

Josh Hardin of the organic Laughingstock Farm between Sheridan and Redfield is another farmer trying out something new to bring to Central Arkansas farmer's markets: Hawaiian ginger. It will grow as an annual here, producing a thin-skinned, strong baby ginger. In another two or three weeks, he thinks, his two 50-foot rows will yield 250 pounds of ginger, some of it destined for the Capital Hotel for ginger ale.

Hardin comes from a long line of farmers, and he thinks the weather of late is an interval of "extreme patterns" rather than an indication of long-term global warming. "This is Arkansas," he says. Planting for heat "is my whole crop plan."


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