Calling Dr. Tomato

Dr. Tomato wants you to grow a garden. The reasons are deeply seeded in his social conscious and eating fresh, healthy food is just the start. David O’Connor, aka Dr. Tomato, came of age in the late sixties and is still singing the praises of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Where most hipsters, counter-culture types and readers of Mother Earth News have long since succumbed to the siren call of big box homes with picket fences, O’Connor has stuck to his guns.Not that the medieval castle keep he and his partner Loretta Salazar built in Barrington is fortified, but it has all the other bells that would make a 10th-century lord and lady comfortable, except, of course, for the serfs. For O’Connor, his lifestyle and his castle are part and parcel of his basic philosophy of life — tread lightly upon the earth — and at every turn possible be self-sufficient. And he walks the talk. The castle was built with no outside help, is kept warm by super insulation, solar panels and wood stoves, and is surrounded with lush gardens.Gardening has been a lifelong passion for the couple. They want other people to know the joys of working the soil and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Just as important for them, small gardens could be a step to solving the pickle of food, social and environmental concerns.“Forty-two percent of homes had victory gardens during WWII,” says Salazar. O’Connor adds, “Personal gardens and community gardens are the only way for a community to be self-sufficient. Food from all the town’s farmers markets would not feed everyone in the region.” Is it time to localize our food supply?The Eat Local movement had its roots in the early ’70s but the groundswell of information and interest is just peaking. The time is ripe and the concerns are in the news everyday — will careless mismanagement of our environment lead to our doom? O’Connor is making one small step for mankind and asking you along on the journey.O’Connor and James Cavarretta started Healthy Home Harvest LLC in Northwood almost two years ago for a multitude of reasons. Foremost, they wanted to prove they could extend the growing season without energy from the grid. And more importantly, offer the know-how and supplies to individuals for growing their own produce.Last year the team developed what they affectionately call the Mother Ship. With elegantly simple engineering, the greenhouse structure was designed with a large 45-degree south-facing wall to transmit the sun and a steeper pitched, highly insulated back wall to retain the heat. A simple array of plastic barrels filled with water absorb heat during the day and defuse heat throughout the evening, extending the growing season on both ends. The basic methodology was originally developed by earnest pioneers around the first Earth Day, but left, along with the compost heap, for resurrection a generation later. O’Connor was confounded that a visiting team of agriculture students from UNH were so amazed at the basic physics inside the Mother Ship.Does Dr. Tomato harvest tomatoes in February? No. O’Connor explains that the light demands of tomatoes make it next to impossible for them to ripen. Sure, they could add extra light sources to augment the low-slung rays and short days, but that extra energy demand is not compatible with their philosophy.O’Connor has coined the term “Solarorganic” to define the growing methods used by Healthy Home Harvest. Seeds, fertilizers and growing methods used are compatible with organic growing, but the operation is not “Certified Organic” because of the cost of documentation. And cost is important to O’Connor. He wants to produce affordable organic tomatoes and strives to avoid premium pricing. More importantly, the real cost to the environment is lower with his efficiencies in passive solar energy.Short of building your own Mother Ship, Healthy Home Harvest offers supplies and instruction on extending the season with a simple hoop house for the home gardener. They sell curved aluminum rods that are set in the ground to hold plastic sheeting that retains heat from plastic barrels filled with water. This method may only gain you one month on either side of the regular season, but having tomatoes in November would just be cool.O’Connor has also developed a potting mix with peat moss, vermiculite and perlite called Rowdy Roots. It is a typical formulation, but he has incorporated a special wetting agent to make the soil accept and retain moisture. This soil-less mixture is what Healthy Home Harvest uses to grow all their vegetables from seed to potted plants.Dr. Tomato’s Organic Fish and Seaweed Fertilizer helps tomatoes develop thick, sturdy stems. He claims it has better bio-availability than commercial products. The soil mix, fertilizer and seedlings are available at Blue Seal Feeds in Rochester and the Dover Agway.At harvest time Healthy Home Harvest produce is sold at the Newmarket farmers market on Saturdays and the Northwood market on Thursdays. Last winter they sold greenhouse-grown radishes, turnips and leafy greens at the indoor market at the Old Stone Church.One specialty edible growing in a climate-controlled corner of the Mother Ship is MycoAngelo Mushrooms. The finicky fungus can be difficult to grow, but now Grey Dove Oysters, Lion’s Mane and Shiitake mushrooms are making appearances at the Newmarket and Northwood farmers market year round.Dr. Tomato is the voice of O’Connor and all that Healthy Home Harvest stands for when he speaks to gardening clubs, community garden organizers and just about anyone who will listen. His message is not much different than you would have heard in the heady days of the early ’70s, but this is a message that should not be forgotten. Big is not always better, local trumps trucking from afar and give a little to gain a lot. O’Connor is heartened to know that James and other younger members of the community continue to carry the banner. Lessons learned need to be remembered. O’Connor says, “Ninety-nine percent of my generation who were going to save the world are now part of the problem.” NHContainer Gardening“If you have a deck then you have a garden,” says O’Connor. Container gardening can be a very efficient method of growing most any vegetable, herbs and even fruit. If you have a spot with at least five hours of direct sunlight, plants can flourish in containers. Here are a few tips from Dr. Tomato for a lush garden and healthy eating just outside your door:Choose a large enough container — when in doubt, use a bigger container. A tomato plant will need at least a 5-gallon container.Make sure the container has adequate drainage.Use a high-quality potting mix. A good choice is an organic, soil-less mix made from a base of peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.Fertilize with an organic fertilizer such as a fish and seaweed hydrolysate. Add amendments such as mycorrhizae for even more benefit.Fertilize often during the growing season. Remember, in a container, the only food your plants get is what YOU give them.Keep the soil moist — not too wet or dry.Experiment with different varieties of flowers and vegetables. You’ll be amazed at what you can grow in containers.Share a little of your bounty with someone in need. Bring a few of your flowers to a neighbor who could use a smile.