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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...


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