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24 December 2010

Visions of What SLOLA Could Be

A friend of mine shows off a Christmas Lima Bean, named for the bright red and white seeds.  A productive Lima bean that persists right through our winters,'Christmas' is on my list of seeds that I hope SLOLA will save - what is on YOUR list?  

Right now SLOLA (the Seed Library of Los Angeles) is in a formative stage and we have committees that deal with some things that aren't so interesting for most of us. We have to have rules/bylaws; we need to set standards and create protocols with structure – and we have to do it from whole cloth in order to make this vision of a seed library work and make it work for the generations to follow – if we set something in motion and fail to make it strong as an organization and institution, we could see all the work go for nothing if the seeds cannot be kept with pure genetic lines maintained and attention to all the little details wherein the Devil resides.

But... If you are at all like me, seeds are one of my playgrounds and I love to fiddle with them. When I'm not planting them, I'm dreaming about them and I'm making lists of what I'll plant later this year or what I hope I will be able to plant soon or maybe some rare heirloom that I can't find will obsess me for days until I either find it or give up trying.  I grew up in Kansas and during the winter, with snow over the garden, I would page through the seed catalogs, memorizing the ones with the descriptions that captured my imagination, making long lists of the ones I wanted Grandpa to buy.  He saved his seeds, so really never did take second note of my long lists, but I learned a lot from those seed catalogs and the fascination of a house-bound ten year old gardener for seeds is still with me today.

At the December meeting I asked everyone to come back to the January meeting (the 15th) with a list of 25 vegetable seeds they would like to see be a part of the collection of seeds that SLOLA offers. I hope you've been playing with this list; I have! I have about already over shot twenty five, so anyone needing additional suggestions, I'm ready to supply you with several to give you a full list!

But after I had made the list, I began to daydream about the future of SLOLA; a time when there is no real bylaws committee and the database committee is ad hoc, coming together only to solve a problem or to work out a better solution as warranted.

When that time comes, I see a Potato committee, a Lettuce Committee, a Pepper Committee and a Corn Committee and committees for every seed for which there is an interest in carrying on specific traits or creating newer cultivars. Each committee is looking at that plant and the different varieties available and perhaps even making new open-pollinated cultivars that improve the plants we can grow in the Los Angeles Basin. Perhaps in a few years, the L A area could be awash in the just-released “Bonilla Potato” or the “Spitz Red Leaf Lettuce!” Maybe there will be a super-productive red-skinned (and fleshed!) potato called “Rose Spuds” or a “Souper Soup Bean!"

The possibilities could be even more productive than the hybrids we see today – the only reason hybrids have become so much more productive than open-pollinated seeds is the amount of research that has gone into them – and that productivity has been at the expense of other, arguably just as important qualities, like taste or ability to grow and produce well in the micro-climate of the LA Basin. What has been done with hybrids can be approximated with open-pollinated plants. Corporations won't do it because there is no profit in it for them that justifies the research and trials – but a seed library can and should put efforts into breeding more productive stock for our areas.

But we will also need people who have mechanical skills to create appropriately powered machines to help us keep our seeds and make them even more available to more people. I have pondered for years the idea of a bicycle powered grain thresher, a device that would pound the wheat kernel free from the husk that holds it and winnow out the debris of the husk leaving a person with a wheat berries to be ground. Already my mind is turning to a similar contraption that will remove all the corn seeds from a cob without burning blisters into a person's hands.

It's not just wheat seeds that need threshing – several other vegetables can be hard to break out of coverings – and who knows? - maybe one day SLOLA will offer some varieties of wheat that do well in Los Angeles – or perhaps rice or other grain – they do comprise a large part of our diets.

But first veggies. Then I'm very keen on herbs – culinary and medicinal and flowers – edible and medicinal - and even those flowers that are not edible and 'only' good for the spirit, like my favorite, sweet peas. They are 'food for the soul' as some wise person a few years ago said. 

The idea that one day we can have a small catalog of seeds available to members that will cover all the major vegetables and a few of the not so major ones as well, is tremendously empowering and exciting. I can't even think of this for a few minutes before I get all enthusiastic and I want to run out and plant another row of something that needs to be saved and dream of a future of a secure food supply, made secure by a few people who saw and acted on their uncommon common sense..

Times that are tenuous are often the times of greatest creativity. Certainly, in a turbulent economic time, faced with the greed of behemoth companies like Monsanto and others, a determined band of Los Angelenos came together to fight back the only way they could; by planting a seed of something that could grow.

I remember the old line: "Hope will never die as long as seed catalogs are printed.” Perhaps we can say, “Hope is ours to plant and harvest; we tend our own hope and hold our own destiny in our hands,” once again like our forebearers once did and we can claim their independence because of the seeds we have planted today.

Long live SLOLA!!

Here's MY current seed list of seeds I want to save first, subject to change as I think of more, in no particular order:

  1. Queensland Blue Squash
  2. Cannelini Bush Bean
  3. Flammé Tomato
  4. Tango Lettuce
  5. Drunken Woman Lettuce
  6. Merlot Lettuce
  7. Merville des Quatre Saison Lettuce
  8. Nutribud Broccoli
  9. Burpee's Golden Beet
  10. Five Color Silverbeet Chard (AKA Rainbow Chard)
  11. DiCicco Broccoli
  12. San Marzano Tomato
  13. Cherokee Tomato
  14. Pencil Pod Wax Bean
  15. Royal Burgundy Bean
  16. Parris Island Cos Lettuce
  17. Jalapeno Pepper
  18. Corno di Toro Pepper
  19. Scarlet Nantes Carrot
  20. Chioggia Beet
  21. Purple Top White Globe Turnip
  22. Copenhagen Market Cabbage
  23. Winningstadt Cabbage
  24. Country Gentleman Corn
  25. Golden Bantam Corn
  26. Garden Peach Tomato
  27. Fiber Flax
  28. White Cherry Tomato
  29. Gossypium arborense
  30. Gossypium hirsutum
  31. Gossypium barbadense
  32. Christmas Lima Bean
  33. Albino Beet
  34. Bulls Blood Beet
  35. Calabrese Broccoli
  36. Hutterite Soup Bean
  37. Mammoth Red Rock
  38. Early Snoball Cauliflower
  39. Bloody Butcher Corn
  40. Mexican Wedding Corn
  41. Stowell's Evergreen Corn
  42. Armenian Cucumber
  43. Long Red Florence Onion
Hope your list is just as long and varied and I hope we can have all of these in our inventory by this time next year... Oh..  And Merry Christmas (Lima Beans) to you and yours!


10 October 2010

Combating Hunger: A Growers' Bibliography

I was approached by a young woman wanting to learn how to teach others how to garden even though she feels she needs to learn more about it herself. Probably no other goal lends itself more to my passion and what I most love to teach. I have often dreamed I would run away from home and join the Peace Corps and go off to grow food in other parts of the world. I have fantasized about being sent to the country of Georgia (home to garlic), or other places where I could learn about the land races of different foods.

Back in the late 1980's I read Save Three Lives by Robert Rodale and Mike McGrath; Rodale was killed before the book was finished. This book galvanized my thinking and long before it was common knowledge that there was no food shortage in the world that couldn't be fixed with political will and transportation, I understood that our government - along with the other imperial powers - perpetuated famine a lot more than they actually relieved it. Since then, The White Man's Burden showed how that problem, in the years since Rodale's book had only gotten worse, not better.

When I went to Guatemala, I took copies Rodale and McGraths' book to give away while I was there - and I have frequently given this book to those I think could use it and grasp its importance. I still refer back to it and it occupies a place of honor on my bookshelf.

I also took Out Of The Earth with me to Guatemala, though it is not a 'how-to' agriculture book.  Daniel Hillel has written a truly readable book about mankind's relationship with the soil that approaches poetry in many paragraphs.  I have read passages from this book to classes I teach on soils - I have had students from those classes tell me five years on that the one thing they loved the most about my soils class was that I turned them on this book.  

But the book I read that first intimated that there are other ways to grow things was J. Russell Smith's Tree Crops.  The current reprint is from 1987, but the original manuscript was first published in the first third of the 1900's, reprinted again sometime in the 1950's!  This man should have won a bunch of prizes, because, like Small is Beautiful, Schumacher's brilliant essay written far in advance of everything else along that line, Smith at that early date decries the destruction of the rain forest (what would he say today?) and postulates the beginnings of permaculture.  And judging by the price on this book at Amazon, I'm going into my office right now and taking my copy home!  With this book and Rodale's book provide a solid study on a new way to feed people - especially in lands with erratic rainfall.  A term that could be used to describe much more of the Earth now that climate change is so obviously an everyday part of life on this planet. 

All these books set the stage for one to appreciate some new ways of frying the same old fish, but for a 'how-to,' one can't go much righter than John Jeavon's How To Grow More Vegetables and Fruits
Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine.  I do NOT subscribe to Jeavon's double digging, but the crops he plants, the spacings he uses and all the data he has on how many row feet to feed this number of folks a good diet and all the data on compost makes this a reference that is unbeatable on today's market.  

Instead of all that double digging, I suggest the regimen first postulated by Fukuoka, in One Straw Revolution, especially when coupled with the work of Emily Hazelip as seen on You Tube videos.  She took the Fukuoka method and 'translated' it to a French market garden.  Although I have yet to put her methodology into total practice, I try emulate as much as I can and I have a goal to work towards.

Remember, the idea that we need machines, hybrids, fertilizers and insecticides to produce food for the masses is mostly a set of lies designed to sell us products we don't really need.  Mind you, I can see where a small tractor and some mechanical assistance would be helpful, but it's not essential.  In fact, the most productive way to grow food is not on a farm at all, but in a garden where most of the work is done by hand:  calorie for calorie the garden is the most efficient way to produce food.  In fact, the bigger the operation, the less efficient the process.  The so-called 'economy of scale' does not work for growing food unless one feels no compunction about poisoning the earth, the water or the workers and doesn't mind food grown in stressful conditions.  

And food of lesser quality as far as nutrients and taste are concerned.  Another bill of goods we have been sold is the idea of the unblemished, perfect fruit.  Those fruits that have no marks, no bites from them are only possible as long as heavy doses of poisons are used to kill insects.  It is a price Americans need to learn is too high.  In fact, the blemished fruit needs to be held up as the epitome of goodness, Mom apple pie and all that is right in the world.  

But that's a fight that will have to come later - right now, lets learn as much as we can about how one grows a complete diet at home for one family and understand the urgency and importance of that.  


02 September 2010

Nikolay Vavilov And The Fight Against Hunger

In the world of hunger prevention and the honest efforts to better mankind's access to enough food for everyone, Nikolay Vavilov's name counts among one of the most important and dynamic pioneers. Unwilling to sit in a lab or in a university office, Vavilov made several very important excursions to areas where the beginnings of agriculture took root and there, where plants were first domesticated by humans, Vavilov sought to find, access and use that genetic diversity to help grow the crops that would feed the Russian people of the newly formed Soviet Union.

That Soviet Union supported Vavilov through out the beginnings of his career and allowed him to go on these international excursions – to Ethiopia, Mexico and the Amazon rainforest. Everywhere Vavilov went, he collected seeds, specimens and data on the many different plants that he came across being used as food for humans. He introduced species to be grown that could adapt to the growing conditions of the Russian farm belt and worked tirelessly to expand the food production capabilities of the Russian farmer.

Stalin's Soviet Union turned on Vavilov and threw him in prison, where, ironically enough, Nikolay Vavilov starved to death. Stalin's regime needed scapegoats and Vavilov would not endorsed the Soviet theory of genetics that Stalin promulgated. During the famines of the 1930's, Stalin undertook to convince the population that good harvests were just at hand because the new 'Soviet genetics' promised immediate changes in food plants' genomes. Of course, it wasn't true and Soviet harvests, just like American harvests, languished through the Great Depression of that decade regardless of propaganda. Vavilov, however, was just as dead as were thousands of Russian peasants who died of starvation as well. But Vavilov's ideas and his plants were not.

In WWII, then known as Leningrad, St Petersburg was besieged by the Nazi army. Scientists working at the Vavilov Institute protected Vavilov's seed collections with their lives – choosing to not eat rather than eat the seeds of Vavilov's work. All this in much greater detail is the narrative of Gary Paul Nabhan's Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. This small volume, incredibly readable, is one of many books Nabhan has written about our relationship to food. A quick read, it is none-the-less a fascinating tale of a truly gifted researcher who contributed much to our current understanding of food and how we came to have what we have to eat. Nabhan retraces Vavilov's journey on several of his important treks across our globe. It is a highly recommended read if you have any interest at all in eating.

Now, however, once again, the legacy of Nikolay Vavilov is again threatened, not by war, but by greed and development (I think the two words are practically synonymous – no, they don't have to be, they just often are). As reported on NPR a few days ago, the gardens that hold the plants grown from Vavilov's seeds is to be offered to the auction block for development. Please listen to the story. I am looking for a way to register my opposition to the sale of any property that is part of the Vavilov legend.


17 August 2010

Check This Out: The Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA)

Vegetable seeds tightly closed in jars to keep them more viable are all from The Learning Garden's growing over the past couple of years. These very seeds could be the beginning of a seed library for the Los Angeles area.

The idea for the Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA) has been brewing for some time and it's still not quite yet soup. However, it is now closer to reality because The Learning Garden at Venice High School has made it one of the projects they are willing to support.

A seed library works very similar to a book library. The main difference – and the big problem to make it viable – is that seeds are living entities with a life expiration. This means stock has to be dated and rotated – and some will have to be thrown out when it's too old to sprout.

As a member of a seed library, you check out seeds just like you would a book. You plant those seeds and grow out the crop, at the end of the season, you return fresh seeds,taken from your crop, to the library. The library benefits from being able to offer the next person fresh seed and you benefit from having free seeds. It's a win/win for you and your neighbors and it keeps Monsanto out of your garden and denies them profit from feeding your family. Furthermore, the seeds gradually become more adapted to our climate and soils. By choosing the best plants from the crop, like farmers used to do, we gently move the genetic makeup to suit our needs better.

The Learning Garden is the perfect place for a seed library because of the wealth of variety of plants grown there. Their gardens include a cornucopia of vegetables, California Natives and medicinal plants from which they can stock the seed library and keep it fresh.
The Learning Garden also has space to grow out seed that is getting too old to germinate.

To make this happen,the needs are, as follows:

  1. volunteers to run the seed library – catalog and inventory the supplies and to run the 'open' days.'
  2. a database complicated enough to thoroughly track the seed and insuring viability for those checking out the seed but simple enough to be used by volunteers – experiments are underway with a free database to see if it would work.
  3. a computer that can run that database – the Garden has an old Windows 2000 machine that might work, but it would be better to have something more up to date.
  4. several cabinets of some kind that can store the seeds.
So, right now, consider this a canvassing for folks who think this is a good idea and find people who want to join the seed library, people who want to help create a seed library and people who would be willing to volunteer one afternoon a month to open the seed library to the community. There may well be a $10 joining fee so the seed library can purchase supplies, but the idea is low cost seeds, so, other than fines for failing to return the seeds, just like a book late fee, there should be no other cost involved.

Let me know if you are interested – and I'll keep you posted as we move forward.


08 April 2010

Lawns vs. Sanity

A wooden aqueduct, part of Santa Barbara's original water supply (destroyed in last year's wild fires) is somewhat illustrative of the necessity of fresh water for civilization.  

Recently, I was joking with a friend about the presence of lawns in Los Angeles. I think I concluded our conversation with a remark to the tune that, “It is utterly ridiculous to have a lawn in Los Angeles.”

A colleague, someone who teaches in the same horticulture program as I do, standing behind me, heard the comment and erupted into a tirade in defense of lawns and ended by declaring, and I think I'm pretty close to exactly what she said, “If we didn't have lawns, Los Angeles would be a hell hole!”

I was stunned. I thought I'd been transported back to the early 1960's. Such beliefs do not hold sway with the folks I know and I was shocked that a co-faculty member could hold this as a common truth.

Perhaps I'm being a little elastic. Could have been early 1990's. In my mind, wrecking other eco-systems to have green lawns went out of style a long time ago. No matter of the exact approximate date, by 2010 I thought even the village idiot knew that piping water from other places in order to have a lawn to look at was considered, at best, gauche.

After all, I would wager that 90% or more of the lawns in Los Angeles are walked on only when mowed. Like a Hummer H2 they are more to be looked at than driven.

But now, we are crossing beyond merely destroying our neighbor's ecosystems to water our pretty, but, worthless lawn. Currently, more and more, we are confiscating ('diverting' in our modern parlance – it means 'stealing') water that used to be used for agriculture. Water from the Colorado River, all up and down its course is being diverted to water lawns in Los Angeles, Tucson and many other cities. This water is not used for food production. That it is used to drink and bathe in cities does not bother me. But to divert this water from the river to indulge in the great luxury of a lawn is decadently selfish and unconscionable.

But to the direct assertion of “Los Angeles would be a hell-hole.” Some folks would argue it is one already and the grass we have has yet to ameliorate it so why the bother? I can only assume her concerns rest on the transpiration of moisture into the air by all this worthless grass. Plants release water into the atmosphere as they photosynthesize and all this grass around us photosynthesizing has to have some beneficial effect on our daily temperature highs. I'm sure she is right.

If you have only to choose between lawn and cement, I think lawn wins on being cooler, but concrete...  Concrete has it's own sustainability problems and it's not a choice we have to make, so it's a moot question. 

However, all plants release water as they photosynthesize, so grass is only one of thousands of plants we could choose to render us cooler. Only a precursory look, though, renders a conclusion that, of all the choices, grass ranks with other thirsty plants as the least desirable to help achieve this cooling. We have thousands of choices to cool us, and a good portion of those are drought-tolerant species. California oaks, needing no supplemental water in average years release some 280 gallons of water a day to help cool our atmosphere. Let's see: no water, no mowing, shade in the summer, beautiful leaves and 280 gallons in one day. Now, tell me again, why we need lawns in Los Angeles?

If low growing plants are essential to your well-being, then one of many of California's native grasses, sedges and other grass-like plants make lovely undulating lawns that neither drink excessively nor need mowing. They do better with some water, but nothing like the amount of water required by our lawn grasses. And there is a veritable cornucopia of California native plants that will photosynthesize and produce moisture in the air cooling our little 'hell-hole' quite nicely, all using less water than the ubiquitous lawn.

In fact, thousands of pounds (millions?) of good clean, healthy food could be grown in those same spaces and done so beautifully (as described in my upcoming book) using much less water than grass and which you will mow. There is no way to justify the ugly and horrible effects our lawns have on other ecosystems and there is no argument that sways me toward eating grass, even over eggplant!

In my mind, there is no line of reasoning that can be conjured to keep any private lawn.  To argue that they are essential for the cooling of our atmosphere is simply a ludicrous proposition I cannot accept. Lawns are a drain on limited resources, provide no benefit that cannot be better provided with less input from other plants and impart only a limited aesthetic appeal. I say yank out the lot of lawns.

If you must have lawn, may I suggest you find a climate that supports your choice. You, and your lawn, are not welcome here.


02 April 2010

‘Greener Gardens’ at UCLA Extension

Orchid Black, shown from a recent tour of the Nature Conservancy's Rainwater Harvesting Demonstration site in Tucson, AZ. 

I’ll be teaching ‘Greener Gardens: Sustainable Garden
at UCLA Extension starting Monday, April 5
with co-instructor Orchid Black. This will be the third time I've
taught this class, although this will be the first time it's being
offered as a twelve week course allowing Orchid to offer a more
thorough treatment (get it?) of water in the garden. We’ll be covering swales and  earthworks,  as well as appropriate use of greywater and rainwater harvesting, along with the basics of native and drought-tolerant planting. All aspects of sustainable backyard food will be addressed.

Following is a quote from the UCLA Extension website:
“Sustainability is today’s buzzword and many people seek to create a lifestyle with a more favorable impact on the environment.  From home and school gardens, to commercial sites, our gardens present the perfect place to start. Designed for horticulture students, gardening professionals, educators, and home gardeners, this course focuses on turning your green thumb into a “greener” garden. Topics include composting, irrigation, water harvesting, water wise plants, eating and growing local produce, recycling, and moving away from a consumptive, non-sustainable lifestyle when choosing materials and tools. … “ 

Teaching the class with Orchid will be a definite improvement for the course. In the past, she presented one night of water conservation which was obviously not enough depth. The class has been expanded from six sessions to twelve (half an elective to a full
elective) to allow her to develop the important issue of water conservation more fully and  allow students to come to a deeper understanding of sustainability in our world.

Here’s a link to UCLA Extension webpage for the class, which is still open:

12 February 2010

The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

Jane S. Smith Author
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0143116894
ISBN-13: 978-0143116899

Jane Smith gave a presentation to the Southern California Horticultural Society on her recently published (and soon to be published in paperback) book, The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants. I wish my UCLA Extension propagation class had been there. I bought the book, however, so everyone should expect to be regaled with stories from it over the coming weeks.

Burbank, before the world in general had grasped the implications of Mendel and Darwin's work, was busy putting his intellect into the art of breeding plants. He proved to be a genius at it and the catalog of his introductions over his lifetime is staggering! We owe to him the Burbank potato (over 150 years after its' introduction, it is still the most widely planted potato in the world); Shasta Daisy, a plant with four parents and a staple in cottage gardens world wide; and the Santa Rosa plum (and others) which is probably still the standard against which all red plums are gaged to this day. And MANY more!

His home in Santa Rosa, CA (hence the names of the plum and the daisy) is almost like going to Mecca for those gardeners who admire Burbank's work. This book, not so much a biography of the man as it is directed at his plant breeding, is perfect to understand the motives and the actions of Burbank, who still stirs controversy today. Some folks call him a huckster, some folks call him a charlatan. Others count Luther Burbank a hero and an extraordinary genius, up in the pantheon with Mendel, Darwin and others working in this field.

One story that I thought would be wonderful for a propagation class, involved a banker who had purchased a quantity of land that he wished to plant into orchards of plums. In February, he placed an order for 120,000 plum trees to be delivered that November. Burbank accepted the order and set about to fulfill it.

He planted fields of almond trees, a very fast growing tree in the same family and closely related to the plum. In late summer, Burbank grafted plum buds to all those trees which were dug and sold that November.! Not only was is it quite a cash windfall that Burbank could use, good reputations have been built on a lot less! It heaved Burbank's already god-like status deeply into the stratosphere.

Although I have only started the book, I think it will be a fine read to tear through on a week without a class. And it will be right in tune with teaching propagation to gardeners!


04 February 2010

Botanical Interests Provides A New Button

From the seeds given to the Venice High School Horticulture program, I plucked this packet of eggplant to show you the beautiful art work on a Botanical Interests seed packet and to show the price of $1.59 which is a pretty good price for a gram of eggplant seed.  Mind you, this packet might be from a previous year's production so eggplant seed might be slightly higher, but still a good deal by any standards.  And I've learned you won't be gouged on shipping charges either!

I'm pleased to call everyone's attention to the newly added direct link to Botanical Interests Seeds on each of my blogs. A little bit about Botanical Interests that makes me proud to add this link to my garden writings, besides the fact that they'll give me a small commission on everyone who orders seeds by using that button:

  • Botanical Interests has signed the Safe Seed Pledge guaranteeing NO GMO seeds in their listings. I consider this to be an essential commitment for any seed seller to get my business let alone my endorsement.
  • They carry a solid line up of vegetable seeds, usually having one of the best prices in the business per packet. They don't carry all of my favorites, but a darn good lot of them.
  • Many of the seeds are offered 'conventionally grown' or 'organically grown' when they can get the organic seed. The organic seeds are clearly marked so you can choose them easily if that's what you want.
  • I like the packets and the information on each packet provides some lovely factoids which, just like one of my lectures, can make you the life of the next party you attend. Just pull out five or six seed packets and you can impress just about anyone who will listen. Never ever be at loss for something to say again.
  • But the biggest reason I'm happy to put that button up here can be seed looking through the seeds donated to The Learning Garden and Venice High School's horticultural program over the years. Always high in the list of those donated the most seeds I have seen Botanical Interests time and again. Renee's Seeds and Seeds of Change have both sent along a lot of seeds too, but BI's prices nail the others to the ground. And it's quality seed in a bonus good looking, fun reading packet. Maybe one day we'll get them to do a story on the seed packets ala Burma Shave road signs! Wouldn't that be a hoot?

You probably won't find all the seed you want all the time from Botanical Interests, but the ones you do will be high quality and from a dealership you can trust to be honest and ethical. If you don't find all you want, please don't forget Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seed/SEARCH when ordering seeds also, they are the two non-profits I support and urge you too as well.

Hope will never die as long as seed catalogs are printed!
That's an old saw, I didn't make it up, though I wish I had.


28 January 2010

School Gardens Cultivate A Richness Some Fail To Grasp

Students at Venice High School's Learning Garden tend their plots on a sunny day last term.  The Learning Garden is one of Los Angeles' most successful collaborative school/community gardens in California, turning a one acre eyesore into a learning experience that is trans-generational.  David King is the garden manager (Gardenmaster) and teaches for UCLA Extension's Gardening and Horticulture Program.

In a recent article posted online by The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan opines that gardening as a part of a school curriculum is a waste of time and is, as her article is titled, “Cultivating Failure.” Ms. Flanagan has to do some acrobatics to come up with such a conclusion. She has painted horticulture with a brush that only sees it as manual labor and nothing more.

She loads her descriptions with powerful imagery that leaves one feeling she is hell bent on crushing some kind of sour grapes with her words. One could imagine her next article would be about the efficacy of feeding our students McDonald's and forcing them to stay inside for the entire school day. Her charge that a “recipe is easier to write than a coherent paragraph on The Crucible” evidences an elitist leaning and her evident phobia about science – God forbid that humans should be exposed to science, especially in a way that is real and fundamental to the human experience in, of all places, a school!

First and foremost, I want to call Ms. Flanagan's attention to the very real science involved in gardening, the raising of food and the preparation of food. She is evidently unaware that we all must eat and that culture, as Wendel Berry observed, is built on agriculture. She is obviously deluded by the propaganda that all food cultivation is thankless, back-breaking work for the shallow and uncluttered mind.

I wonder what she thinks of the obesity crises and why it is that just feeding a child a decent breakfast can raise test scores by 10 points (the least expensive way our society can raise those test scores!).  She seems to hold that test scores are the only judge of worth, although she doesn't seem to think that teaching to test scores will not affect other school programs that I trust she does value.

Flanagan has a palpable distaste for that Chez Panisse and Alice Waters that comes across as almost pathological. I have never eaten at Chez Panisse and the people I work with in school gardens all over Los Angeles, don't strike me as the Chez Panisse crowd. Mostly, we are middle/lower class and we are eat a pretty standard fair for our daily meals.

But we eat better than most Americans of all economic strata because we know how to to grow a lot of our own food and we know the value of fresh, wholesomely grown food. The cheap food that Ms. Flanagan sees her poor Mexican protagonist picking as she opens her sorrowful and misguided tale is not the pinnacle of a modern society. It is an eyesore that needs to be remedied. We, as a society and culture, need to come to a place where the growing of food is no longer the counted as the sweat of the ignorant – but the consumption of such food by the affluent ignorant must end as well. Ms. Flanagan's ignorance permeates her entire article and The Atlantic should be ashamed for stooping to such low standards of journalism.

Speaking of 'vacuous,' Ms. Flanagan has no statistics on her side. She quotes one or two folks who tell her that gardens are not on their agenda because they have to get students to score high on those tests. I would argue that the tests are as much an error and a misguided compass as are Ms. Flanagan's conclusions. She bases her conclusions on single instances of school scores (a population of one is not science).

I would argue that no society can be great that has such a disparaging view of agriculture as Ms. Flanagan seems to hold. I would suggest that no nation can be strong if it must import the bulk of its food. I would propose that a nation might have to go to war to insure its continued supply of petroleum from abroad, but such a tactic is doomed to fail if that same nation went to war to guarantee its food supply.

The author's command of science is short and her infatuation with language so bloated that I don't think any serious reading of the article gains a person any understanding of school horticulture and the role it plays or doesn't play in educating children. By her criteria, schools should abandon sports, theater, possibly journalism and any other activity that does not lead to higher test scores. The school must teach the exam and only the exam. With irony, one hears a teacher say to her, “I'm sorry Ms. Flanagan, we don't have time to teach The Crucible, it's not on the standardized exit exam.” I leave it to the many people she didn't quote, the people that heaped all those awards on Alice Waters to know what might be a better path to a well-educated high school student. Ms. Flanagan doesn't exactly have a record of school curriculum advances of her own.

I imagine she is capable of writing diatribes with the intent of provoking, but not actually doing anything. I ascribe to her all the depth of a political pundit who can only tear down the opposition but offers nothing of substance in return. I find her writing lively and lovely, but as shallow as a witty socialite who might declare, “Let them eat cake!”

That the California school system is broken and needs repair, a conclusion that cannot be refuted, cannot be honestly laid at the roots of school gardens.  That there needs to be a fundamental overhaul of our schools is obvious in many different ways beyond that exit exam.  Unlike Ms. Flanagan, however, I would argue that school gardens are the beacon of a new light that can shine throughout the school system. School gardens could become the beginning of a fresh approach to education that involves students in a learning atmosphere that is compelling and elemental.

It's entirely possible that we won't need farmers for the next sixty years (though I doubt it). Of course, because we all must eat, that food has to come from somewhere. A civilization as divorced from the food chain as Ms. Flanagan appears to be, is a disaster on the verge of crumbling.

This myopia cannot prevail.


22 January 2010

Invasion of the GMO Frankenfood

Found on You Tube, from the imagination of Larry Leptin, a funny animated film provides seven minutes and 27 seconds of fun with the threat of GMO's in our food supply.  Though a light treatment, it provides a person with 'food for thought' as one of the characters learns, "GMO mutated food really is everywhere..."  Thanks to Facebook friend Sharyn Divavox for the link.  


14 January 2010

It's Time To Stand Up And Be Counted Or Become Genetically Modified

 Corn from The Learning Garden shows remarkable genetic variation from one planting.  This genetic variation not only looks cool, but could provide the basis for important new corn varieties that might be needed in the coming global-climate-change decades.  We cannot risk ruining the living material that makes these colorful kernels.

I have a million things I need to do and I'm not really keen on sitting here and pounding out another blog post on Monsanto, but I'm deeply troubled and it's a trouble, like a bad back, that has kept brewing for a few years. It's way past time for us as a nation and as a society to come to terms with Monsanto; a company that has troubled me often in the past, and, in these past few days, there seems to be a harmonic convergence of information and news about Monsanto. Or would that be a 'disharmonic' convergence. Perhaps 'cacophony' would serve better...

In 2004, I took a trip to Kansas to Wes Jackson's Land Institute, a science based program to create perennial food crops that can grow and not harm the prairie's of the mid-West that modern farming has decimated (together lets all say 'dust bowl' read Timothy Egen's book, The Worst Hard Time for a vivid – and chilling – description of that decade long phenomena). The keynote speaker that year was the award-winning journalist Michael Pollan whose books I have reviewed, recommended and loved. And while I knew Wes Jackson (Becoming Native To This Place, a marvelous book that shaped me profoundly in the early 1990's) and others, one man was an unknown.

When I begin to describe Percy Schmeiser, tears well up in my eyes because no man in the civilized world should have to live the hell he lived, losing his farm and his livelihood in Monsanto's race to becoming Forbes magazine's 'company of the year' in a recent issue.

Schmeiser's fields, where he had been saving his own seed for over 20 years, became contaminated with Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola. Monsanto representatives trespassed onto his land, took samples of the plants and deemed that he was in violation of their patent (you can patent life nowadays, did you know that? One of Monsanto's most notorious avenues to get to be top dog in the seed business) and sued him for all he was worth – and in this case, that isn't just an expression. Mr Schmeiser had to file bankruptcy and lost everything he owned, including his farm, in the legal battle to protect his name and try to strike a blow for what he believed to be right.  (Up to date information was broadcast today by National Public Radio's 'All Things Considered' for further indictment of Monsanto's business practice in the farming world.)

This Monsanto campaign is well known in farming circles and has been documented in several films that have shown the disturbing tendency of Monsanto to sue the pants off anyone who doesn't play their game. Farmers who did not plant Monsanto seed are being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement if they don't pay onerous indemnity to Monsanto for their 'violations.' There are two salient points to this problem. The first I alluded to above in that Monsanto was able to patent their seeds, when US Patent Law was changed in the 1950's. Seeds are living things. They are not bowling balls or transistors or weed killers. They are life. No other country in history has ever granted patents for life itself. I can't put my finger on it, but my gut says 'this is WRONG.'

The other salient fact is that these plants are WIND pollinated. That means, a good gust of wind from your neighbor's farm could send pollen into your field, and even though you did not plant Monsanto seeds, the seeds your plants produce would have the telltale genetic markers for a Monsanto product. As reported in a research article in Euphytica, “Oilseed rape pollen has greater capacity for long-range dispersal than had been suggested by small-scale field trials. “ (Canola is the consumer word for the brassica plant that is otherwise called 'rapeseed.' Most of the rape seed oil is produced in Canada and so the name Canola was invented to make the oil more palatable to consumer sensibilities.)

I have often thought that Monsanto was cunningly astute in working with wind pollinated plants. They could contaminate much larger areas with their technology and, after the fact, announce that it was now impossible to retract the genie, “oh oops... look what we did!” Of course, the genie is not retractable and that is precisely why this is UNPROVEN technology. The twenty year trial to see what will really happen on down the road is happening now; in our stomachs, in our fields, on our children's immune systems and in the ecology of the entire planet. Never before (like the patenting of life itself), has the world been provided with such forbidding possibility of a disaster wrecking so many different facets of our lives. Monsanto's genetically modified corn was found in the wilds of Mexico. Monsanto hadn't planted it there – how did it get there? And worse, how much of that rich genetic material that is the heritage of all people who love corn was contaminated? What is the effect of rampant genetically modified pollen in the wild environment? What will happen (over generations) to the corn races of Mexico, the birth place of corn and home to the widest variation of wild genetic 'bloodlines' of corn from which we might need to draw in a future world facing global climate change or other disasters that are just bad 'business decisions' today?

What if this technology eventually is proven to kill off all the butterflies? Or the bees? Remember that it took over two decades to understand that DDT was killing off the eagle and other birds. What if this technology is the cause of immune system problems that take more time to understand? We won't know this until it's too late and Monsanto's directors have made a killing (would that be a 'too-appropriate' word?) in profits by ruining lives, ecologies and societies?

In fact, there is evidence that Roundup kills more than weeds. That is the very title of an article in the January 2010 issue of Mother Earth News. “French researchers have released a series of studies showing that glyphosate-based herbicides are toxic to human reproductive cells.” Over 100 million pounds of glyphosate are in use around the world in 2002 (last year with available numbers – it's surely higher today). (Glyphosate is the chemical name for the active ingredient in Roundup.)

“Most of the food we eat that contains corn or soy was sprayed with glyphosate herbicide, and we’re being exposed to higher and higher levels of residue. In response to petitions from Monsanto, the EPA has approved up to 20-fold increases in the legal residue limits for food crops.” So, you are eating this stuff every day – a lot more if you are eating processed foods, eating in chain restaurants (goodbye Norm's...), fast food or your school cafeteria. Read the article.

Now this might be just the beginning of a lot more disturbing news. Or it might not. But why were we allowed to be the test population for Monsanto's inventions? Monsanto and big Pharma work with the same business model as Union Carbide (remember Bhopal?): Make us the money now because we'll be bankrupt when it's time to clean up our mess. It is tiring to have to face off with people who have the ethics of a rabid dog constantly. But will we just wring our hands and mutter to ourselves?

In my earlier post, I listed companies that are Seminis seed dealers – Seminis is the name of Monsanto's seed business – and I asked everyone to not buy from those companies. Off line I was given a little flack because companies like Johnnies Selected Seeds really does sell a lot of seeds and it can be hard to get some of the old hybrids many of us have come to love (not on my lists of favorites, but F1 hybrids that many home gardeners love, like Big Boy or Early Girl tomatoes) because Seminis has bought up the companies holding the rights to those hybrids. I contend that giving ANY money to Monsanto feeds the giant and is only one of our few tools available to us.

Join the Organic Consumers Association's campaign against Monsanto. Plant open pollinated seeds in your garden (and join Seed Savers Exchange while you are there!) and grow as much of your own food as you can. Go to farmers' markets and ask the farmer what he grows, supporting only those who will look you in the eye and say they aren't growing GMO food. Write Forbes magazine and ask them what the hell were they thinking in making a rapacious and unethical monopolizing Goliath of evil their 'company of the year.'

It would be symbolic, but I have thought that the County of Los Angeles should follow Mendocino County in outlawing the growing of gentically modified organisms. Unfortunately, we have lives to live and I think the most radical thing of all is to grow our own and opt out of the poison-as- solution mentality that has ruined American farmland in these last fifty years.

Last note, because it will come up: We do NOT need Monsanto and it's technology to feed the world. That is a lie and has always been a lie. We do not need Roundup just like we did not need the so-called Green Revolution to feed the world. If this were true, the United States would not have over 10 million hungry people as estimated by a new study from Cornell University and the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


01 January 2010

The Garden in January

Rain on a broccoli, and the photographer and his camera.
We are grateful for the rain - even this so-called 'negligible precipitation.' This year, 2010, is shaping up to be our fourth year of drought.

One of the wonderful things of living in Southern California, this close to the Pacific Ocean is the wonderful mild weather we enjoy. This is both a blessing and a curse. Further inland and on almost all of the North American continent, 'gardening' this time of year means looking in the seed catalogs that have begun to fill your mailbox. If you aren't getting seed catalogs on a regular basis, you haven't been gardening a long time.

One of the truisms I will emphasize will be to garden with passion. For me, gardening means doing it yourself and learning what works and how it works. This time in my garden is exciting. On days it isn't raining, the cool weather makes some of the more strenuous work a little less onerous. So this is the time to think about a general garden cleanup, if you haven't done it already.

It is also still a time to look after perennial food. Right now, I begin to contemplate pruning my fruit trees. I will contemplate this for as long as I can procrastinate actually doing it! If you have no experience at it, do your trees a favor and order a pruning handbook from University of California’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Division (ANR) or purchase a pruning book from a reputable source. Remember that these trees will live a lot longer than a typical pet and we wouldn't treat our cats or dogs with the indifference many people show towards trees. Pruned correctly, an apple, plum or peach will produce luscious tasty fruit for many years. It's actually harder on you (and the tree) to prune incorrectly, so find out how and do it as right as you can in the first place.

This is still the dormant season to purchase deciduous fruit trees, apples, apricots, grapes and ornamentals such as roses and wisteria, to name a couple of my favorites. If you are putting perennial herbs in the ground (sage, rosemary and thyme – parsley is a biennial, with apologies to Paul Simon), this is the best time to put them in the ground – even though you may plant them here year round. Buy your trees or vines from someone who knows where you live in order to insure you are getting plants that will produce for you. A local neighborhood nursery will only carry plants that will do well in your climate whereas a big box store will carry things that are more likely to grow over a much wider area. You'll also find the selection at most big box stores to be woefully short and the staff indifferent at best to your needs.

Mail order suppliers are excellent venues for purchasing trees. One of my best finds was from a mail order nursery. I called and talked to one of the staff asking a few questions. There is no replacement for a person with knowledge. Based on where I was gardening, he suggested I grow Dorsett Golden apples. I took his suggestion and I have been blessed with year after year of a delicious, sweet and crisp apple that has wowed visitors to my garden ever since.

When I prune the deciduous stone fruit trees (including peaches, apricots, plums and apples,) if I have had problems with insects in the trees, I finish the job by spraying the trees with dormant oil. Of all the pesticides, this pesticide, with it’s low toxicity to mammals and its 100% effectiveness on pests is one of the best that is listed for organic gardens. If insect infestations are of concern to you, this is the best time to spray because the tree is dormant, not actually growing. A dormant oil spray can be a valuable addition to controlling many pests in these kinds of trees. However, take precautions if you feel you must spray. Follow the directions of the package very closely – using pesticides in ways not described on the label is against the law and usually defies common sense.

While pesticide labels will allow you to spray in the morning or in the evening, please only spray in the evening. Do NOT spry ANY pesticide in the morning ever. Spraying in the morning can allow the pesticide to kill off honey bees which we do not want – while spraying in the evening will insure the bees have returned to their hive for the night. Organic pesticides are only effective when they are wet and are dry by the morning. Honey bees, which have been having a hard time of it lately, should be one of any gardeners' biggest concerns. Please only spray any insecticide in the evening.

However, if you don't have pests to begin with, please consider not spraying at all. We are counting on our trees for food, so we will want to be proactive in their care, but we also need to be intelligent in our use of killing agents in our environment. Much of the problems we face in our world today are the result of mankind's irreverent use of “-icides” of all types. Somehow, modern man has become convinced that warring with nature is a fight he can win. I believe we are foolish when we spray just because. If you have pests, deal with them as the year goes along – and deal with them in ways that avoids all sprays, all “-icides.” I think we can be a lot more intelligent in our dealings with the critters that compete for our food supply and spraying is just admitting we are too stupid to deal with something in a more positive fashion. This does not mean I NEVER spray. But when I do spray, I do think I've just not figured out a less destructive way to solve the problem. Better people than I have called me stupid so, yes, sometimes I do think I might have done better.

On the other hand, all of your citrus fruit trees are evergreen, so they can technically be pruned at any time of the year, but they are best pruned when there is nothing better to do and the day is not too warm, so the person doing the work doesn’t overheat. You cannot spray citrus with dormant oil sprays because they are never dormant. (Something that is 'evergreen' doesn't go dormant – basically 'evergreen' means, no dormancy.) A recent innovation has been the formulation of lighter oil sprays that are called 'summer oils.' They do the same thing as dormant oils with a much less heavy hand and so can be sprayed when the days are warmer and on trees with living leaves. They work well, perhaps not quite as well as dormant sprays, but they are pretty effective. Their drop in effectiveness might be that they are used on trees with leaves and therefore the spray doesn't reach all the insects rather than any lack of killing power on the part of the spray; I don't know if research has been done to show it one way or the other.

As above, though, if you don't HAVE to spray, please don't. A healthy garden is shared among many critters – insects, birds, fungi, bacteria, mammals and humans. By introducing poison to your garden, you run the risk of killing off more than just your target species. Try to find an intelligent way to solve your problems. Read up on the pest. Find it's enemies and make friends with them. Your garden will be healthier and so will you.

This may be a cold month and, if we are blessed, rainy. But we still have to keep our eyes out for Santa Ana winds – sometimes hot and sometimes cool, but always dry and desiccating to garden plants, and plants in pots suffer all the more. If your skin is crawling and you need more skin cream, or lip goop, you can bet your plants need more moisture too! It’s best to get out there with a hose and help your irrigation system keep up – you’ll enjoy your garden more – the “best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow.” Still.

Are you ready to think about summer yet? You mean you never stopped thinking about summer? Now is the time the new seed catalogs come rolling in by the truckload and they all have wonderful photos and several hundred new mouth-watering, irresistible new varieties that I must try… all in a 10’ square bed. If you aren’t getting these free catalogs, a quick jaunt through any gardening magazine will net you half a dozen 800 numbers or you can get web addresses from which to order. Once you've ordered from one, next January will be a real treat. I get sometimes three or four a day.

What will it be this year? Eight different sweet peas, half a dozen different lettuce plants? Look at all those tomatoes for sale and how about the dozen different violas from Thompson and Morgan? And if I knock down the neighbor’s garage, I think I could grow some squash and pumpkins….

More in a minute or two...


The Calendar of Events At The Learning Garden