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Poor Man's Genetic Engineering

The square apple, neck rings and putting a face to your vegetables.

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Those vegetarians who declaim they'll eat nothing with a face now must deal with a terrible paradox: VegiForms.

Here's an invention that's the gardening equivalent of Chinese foot binding: plastic molds sealed around vegetables on the vine that shape the gourd or whatever into elf heads or hearts. What? No, I'm not making this up. Just go check www.vegiforms.com and come back when you're done.

There now. Plastic forms that can grow pumpkins and squash and fruits in the shape of garden elves or "Pickle Pusses," heart and diamond forms for cucumbers and zucchinis (what better way to say "I love you" than with a salad?) and, most surreal, an ear-of-corn shape, should you love the taste of yellow squash, but wish it looked more, you know, cornish.

The reason I bring this up is that with the harvest upon us, these veggies will find their way into cornucopia all across the land. And why not tinker with the traditional designs?

This VegiForms thing gets to the basic human tendency to alter the world around us, a path that leads to a tree with square apples and a snake promising they won't roll away. But what would you expect from a species that uses rings to stretch the necks of girls as a sign of status (in African and Asian tribes), tattoos the face (New Zealand's Maori people) and celebrates the mullet (the Billy Rays of Cyrus)? Still it's nice to see — in this age of genetically modified milks and cheeses, giganto-fruits and winged babies (just you wait) — a kind of tinkering that is fairly easy, beneficial and doesn't require intimate knowledge of organic chemistry.

So in addition to scaring the children with a plate of "Pickle Pusses," here are a few other things to do to meddle with the laws of nature this harvest season and not attract talking snakes.

Supposing you missed your VegiForm window this year, now's the time to plant fruit trees for next year, should you not trust the supermarket to grow your pears anymore. (Speaking of not trusting them, remember not to store apples and pears with your vegetables, since the fruit gives off ethylene gas, which breaks down the veggies — chemical warfare in the plant kingdom). If space is an issue, consider dwarf fruit trees. There are two kinds: dwarfs made by grafting regular trees onto dwarf stock and genetically modified ones, which shouldn't necessarily deter you. These are also good for container planting and yield healthy fruit.

On the subject of containers, Virginia Cooperative Extension reports that smaller containers produce a better yield than larger ones. A USDA laboratory in Maryland found that tomato plants grown in 3 1/2-inch pots produced twice as many fruits as those planted in 11-inch pots when watered three to six times a day. So in addition to tinkering with fertilizers and hardy breeds, consider the smaller pot for your future elf heads.

The extension office also recommends the "Isbell," a buttercrunch lettuce, for your winter garden. Those clever folks at the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station developed a lettuce that may be less attractive to rabbits than some other varieties, and has better resistance to cold, insects and diseases. Plus you get a better yield, and the leaves retain a sweet flavor longer than other types, meaning it'll find a good home in your salad, right next to the heart-shaped cucumbers. HS

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