I have an idea that if a survey was taken, home gardening is among the top pastimes in our part of the country. And among those who are convinced that we can’t live without a garden, tomatoes are usually the first thing to come to mind. We gleefully peruse the rows of little tomato plants at nurseries, greenhouses and garden centers, exclaiming over which ones we’ll have this year.
Yep, it’s all about those tomatoes.
This spring at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market, a brand-new vendor is going to make available varieties of tomatoes that will shock and amaze ya! Alysha and Kyler Barraza, proprietors of Roseburg Exotic Gardening, find new and old but rediscovered varieties of tomatoes intriguing. When asked how she decides what to grow, Alysha says, “If it looks odd, sounds interesting, is unusually colored, even if it has a neat name, I order seeds!”
Besides tons of tomatoes, Alysha and Kyler will offer a wide assortment of cole crops such as broccoli, cauliflower in many colors, collards, eggplants in colors you’ve never seen before and peppers, from mild to scorching.
This small business is unique in many ways. First of all, when I asked how big the greenhouse is, I was told that there is no greenhouse. They have turned a third story room into a grow room, full not of marijuana plants, but of veggie starts. They repurposed some grow lights from a closed down “pot factory,” added fans for air circulation and started planting seeds.
Another difference is the way they “package” their plants for sale. Typically, plants are offered in four inch pots or six packs with six plants of one variety. Both sell for about the same amount. Alysha found this a poor fit for most small gardeners. What if somebody wanted to end up with a dozen plants, all different?
Roseburg Exotic Gardening sells individual plants as “plugs,” ready to plop in the planting hole and take off. Much more economical and much more fun, because you can try so many different varieties. And stepping away from those glorious tomatoes for a bit, who wants six plants of the same variety of anything when you have choices?
Although she’s not a native, Alysha has embraced the area and all it has to offer. Her day job in an office at the ESD in the Roseburg library and her husband’s work in the medical field are probably very rewarding, but you’ll realize quickly that growing things is the passion. Alysha is college educated, with a degree in food and animal nutrition, and planning on helping people understand how to make what they grow give more bang for the buck, so to speak. For instance, educating gardeners about certain varieties that provide more of some nutrients than other varieties.
But always, in the back of her mind, there was a fascination for all the old varieties, the ones that you only get from seed savers groups and seed banks. She said that some seeds have been stored, and even frozen, for as long as 20 years before being made available again. She is especially drawn to the heritage, non-GMO and organic seeds.
The enthusiasm fairly bubbles from Alysha. Her descriptions of favorite tomatoes all but had tomato juice dripping from my chin. Her all time favorite tomato, called Kosovo, is on my list this year and I’m anxious to plant some pink celery if for no other reason than to dry the leaves for later use. (and yes you can grow celery in this climate!) She offers two kinds of okra, but I’ll pass on that slimy stuff and proceed to the beans. Many different runner beans will be available. Think Scarlet Runner in an assortment of colors, an old favorite not only for the beans but because the hummingbirds love it. Malabar spinach, which is not a true spinach, will provide good greens year round without bolting.
Melons… watermelons, cantaloupes and even a strange little melon called a “Jelly Melon” with a flavor that brings to mind lemons and bananas. A particular heritage watermelon grows round bottomed and has a neck! Celeriac, which has always looked too strange to make its way into my kitchen, will get a chance this year because Alysha made it sound so good. Cucumbers don’t figure prominently in the lineup of seedlings, but one in particular rates high with Roseburg Exotic Gardening, and it is a little strange… it is a white cuke, and not a little one. It grows as long as your hand but nice and plump. Alysha and Kyler enjoy fresh cucumber relish and they basically grow this one just for that purpose.
This will be the third year of growing bedding plants. They started small, to them at least, with about 1,500 plants. This year will see about 10,000 plants for sale. Asked what she wants the future to look like, Alysha says that a greenhouse would be nice, and just finding more new seeds to try.
Tomatoes and peppers will probably always be the mainstays of the operation. I have to admit, as an avid lifelong gardener, that I am a sucker for some plants because of the names. “Monster” tomato, yup, gotta have one of those. “Mammi Hubbards Stuffing tomato”, yup, put one of those in my bag. A new pepper called “Habanada” which is hailed as a heatless habanero? Well, I’ll probably be too much of a coward to see if it really is heatless, but okay, I’ll give it a try. A “Fish” pepper will not be following me home because it is extremely hot, but maybe I’ll give “Get Stuffed” a try. Stuffed peppers and stuffed tomatoes, side by side… yum!
I asked Alysha for some growing tips. First, tomatoes need to be fertilized! You can buy small boxes of fertilizer formulated specifically for tomatoes or you can use organic fertilizer, just make sure you read the labels and use it appropriately — 16-16-16 is good for all gardens. Alysha doesn’t shy away from animal manure, again, properly used. You can use rabbit poop fresh from the rabbit, but chicken poop needs to be well composted or it will burn the plants.
Something that many gardeners don’t know is that nicotine is harmful to many plants, especially tomatoes, so if you smoke, wash your hands before you fondle your ’maters! Cole crops like cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts are especially appealing to aphids, so Alysha plants mint under or around these plants and — no aphids!
Alysha and Kyler will be debuting Roseburg Exotic Gardening at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market on April 20. The market is on Harvard at the Methodist church and is open from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.. If you can’t make it to the market, they have a page on Facebook; you can see their varieties there, and also place orders. Some of the plants are only available in limited quantities and can be held until the growing season is a little farther along, so grab them up!