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12 December 2011

Fyll 'er Up! Without Filling Up More Landfills!

Jenn and Carla have an idea that looks to the future...  They've named their enterprise Refyll and you can find them at the Mar Vista Farmers' Market, Sunday mornings on Grandview Avenue at Venice Boulevard.

Jenn and Carla with an unidentified co-
A customer can bring a bottle from home and buy cleaning supplies for body or home.  All natural ingredients and once you're out, bring your bottle back and get a refill, um, refyll.  It's a look at the future of commerce in many aspects - more and more, containers, from cloth bags to glass jars will need to be useful more than once!  If you are fresh out of containers, they'll sell you one, but to really take advantage of the idea, bring your own (recycled) container to get filled.

Check out their website - soon I'll have a report on the goods I bought, dish soap, shampoo and laundry soap.  Right now I've only used the shampoo and I like how it doesn't strip all the oil out of my scalp!  As a beekeeper, I love that I was able to ask for unscented - it really can be a pain (a real pain!) to be working with bees when your hair smells like freesias or sweet peas.  

Go see them on Sunday!  Tell 'em the gardenmaster sent you.


30 November 2011

Occupy Your Life

Hi folks fresh from being evicted by the Los Angeles Police Department, v.2.0.

Some of your are needing bail and some of you are missing stuff and some of you have your pride a little dented, but you were good. All eyes have been on you for several months and (after a long silence the media finally figured out you were there and worth reporting). You made a big statement about the 99% and the 1%. Now that your encampment is gone, I wonder what's next for you?

Already I've heard reports that some of you are showing up in a park near downtown LA with tents and camping gear to carry on delivery of the message. Some will carry on – and maybe a few new folks will join them – but the demonstration, despite your words to the contrary, cannot go on until things change. 'Things' take very long to change. You have lives you must continue and a camping expedition won't contain that for very long.

I have 'occupied' for a very long time. It's different for me. I believe you when you decry the mon ey in politics and the lame economic system that has developed to make the rich richer and keep the poor downtrodden and full of sugar and TV. Yet, my occupation has been doing something that allows me to live my life on a daily basis, participate as little as possible in the oppression you decry and to fight for economic change in a way that is ongoing and sustainable.

I garden.

I save my own seed.

And I don’t shop where I believe my money is going to further oppress people from anywhere in the world. I may not be right all the time, but I make a concerted effort to be informed and try to be right.

It doesn't get me on TV and reporters don't come around and poke mics in my face and ask insipid questions. I am not a media event and what I do doesn't feel all that revolutionary because I just go about living my life. Yet the damage I do to the system is real and sustainable day in and day out. And I'm not alone.

So, dear occupiers, I invite you to join me in an occupy that requires you to change as much as the system you want to change, for, in fact, didn't Gandhi say, “Be the change you desire?” The changes that have to be made have to go beyond using a credit union instead of big national bank (thank you for that one, by the way). It means changing your food market – the way you consume and the way you recycle and your entertainment source.

It means going local. All the way.

Local banking. Local food sourcing. Local music – the band down the street. Live music from your neighbors. Local art. Local energy. Local travel. Nothing is more local than your own garden. Local is everything 'they' don't want. Local is real. Local is powerful. Local is hope. Local is community. Local is support when times suck. Local is celebration when life is abundant. Local is an economy. Local is a farmers' market. Local is a seed bank. Local is a party, not affiliated with politics or national agendas. Local is someone you can talk face to face with. Local is kissing. Local is a hug. Local is smelling the flowers. Local is asking why there are no bike lanes. Local is eating bread fresh from the oven. Local is looking into someone's eyes and touching their core – or letting them touch yours. Local is personal. Local is a solution that solves many problems. Local chews up liars and spits them out. Local celebrates the local garden. Local tastes fresh. Local looks you the face and asks for a buck. Local pats you on the back and says thanks. Local smells like a rose. Local means you need to stand up for peace and safety. Local means you can't hide behind being one of the great unwashed mass. Local means you either really care or you're just full of shit. Local means you give to your favorite local charity. Local means you can say hi to someone you know (fine, thanks, how 'bout you?). Local means more Mom and Pop shops and less K-mart and Walmart. Local means the profits stay local. Local means no McDonalds. Local means organic. Local means less is more. Local means economics as though people matter. Local means here.  Local means now.

Not everything can be local – just try to get me to give up my coffee. But I can get coffee that shows some respect to the folks that grew it. The bottom line is, we have to live a conscious life. No longer can the boob tube show us an ad and we run out to buy the latest piece of crap. Today, we honor ourselves and our earth by turning away from the consumptive creatures of need we have been, into producers and creators of the life we wish to live and wish to export to the world around us.

So, are you willing to truly 'occupy' the spaces of your own life? Are you?

There is much to be done today. Lets get busy!


28 November 2011

I'm Already Thinking of Tomatoes....!

Aren't you?  The day is not far off when seed starters will be starting seeds of tomatoes (my first seeding out is in January!) and, because I order my tomato seeds online, yes, it is the beginning of tomato season for sure.

I don't count on getting tomatoes like these at The Learning Garden...
Seed Savers Exchange posted a link on Facebook which lead me to another link where I found Tomato Fest online, listing the Top Ten Tomatoes for 2011, based on their sales last year.  Before you go there, let me warn you, if you are gardening along the coast (Sunset Zones 22 and 24) you can drool over the beefsteak tomatoes all you want, but be advised, they can be dicey in our ocean influenced climate.  Even though I have proven this wrong once, I have proven it right more than once and I still hold to the thought that large tomatoes do not set fruit well in our climate because they need 85° over a 24 hour period to set fruit.  That is hard to count on when the ocean flow in the evening often chills us down into the 60's.  Having said that, you can now go and lust over these varieties.  Hey, buy the seeds and give them to a friend in Pasadena for Christmas.  How thoughtful!   Then show up in harvest season...  Heh heh...
Also note, along with this post at Tomato Fest, there is also a sale on tomato seeds.  How convenient!  Yes, give tomato seeds for Christmas to everyone (well, at least the locals) and enjoy the excess from several friends and neighbors - take note of what was grown and attend the Seed Library Of Los Angeles meetings (next one December 17th at The Learning Garden) and let them show you how to save the seeds for yourself and the library!
We hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and all are looking forward to a warm and loving December holiday season.  For all who want to enjoy a stress free moment in December, The Learning Garden hosts a Winter Solstice celebration, starting 6:30 PM on the 22nd until the fire goes out.  Bring something warm to drink (we'll have tea and coffee for those who bring their own cup) and maybe a sweet treat, we'll have a fireplace and a ceremony to enjoy.  No gifts, no cards, nothing special to wear (but something warm is a must!), and no stress.  Just come out and observe this important end/beginning on the calendar with peace and reflection.  
What a concept!

12 September 2011

A New Seed Saving Seminar With David King!

It's about time.  Last January we had a seed saving seminar with SLOLA Chair and Founder, David King that was thoroughly enjoyed by every one.  We have finally pinned the dates down and are very pleased to announce our next offering: 

Essentials of Seed Saving

Generations before us understood the importance of saving seeds. It was an essential part of the lives of all our ancestors. This vital connection was lost as we began to purchase our seeds from seed sellers. In recent times, the specter of GMOs and monster corporations controlling the seeds they created and the very real prospect of seed corporations having control over our food supply.

October 20, 27 and November 3, 6:30 PM to 9:30 PM, at
The Learning Garden,
SE corner of Walgrove Avenue and Venice Blvd.
310.722.3656 or

Saving our own vegetable biodiversity today provides us
  • those old open pollinated varieties that taste good.
  • a wider range of vegetable varieties and more control over what we can have.
  • a closer participation in the cycle of life. In our gardens.
  • a hedge against personal financial misfortune.
  • a safeguard against food shortages.
  • our own way to mitigate against climate change and it's impact on agriculture.
  • the means to fight our shrinking biodiversity.
Upon completing this short course, participants will know why we urgently need to learn how to save seeds, the basics of saving most vegetable seeds, optimum conditions for seed preservation, how to preserve the genetic lines of different types of seed and short-cuts and tips from someone steeped in the seed saving ethic.  

David King began his time in the garden at his Grandfather's knee back in northeast Kansas.  He has been an avid gardener for most of his life and has taught gardening and horticulture at UCLA Extension and UC Cooperative Extension.  He has been with The Learning Garden at Venice High School for over ten years and is the Chair of the Seed Library of Los Angeles. He has written the LA Garden Blog for over three years as well as several columns for periodical publication.  A course of information, delivered with passion and humor is guaranteed.

We have limited seating, reserve your space now!

SLOLA members get a $10 discount - email David for enrollment procedures. 

Date Enrolled

27 August 2011

Why Urban Farms Will Save the Economy and Lives

No longer are we preaching to the choir!  The word is out and people are piling on the bandwagon:  urban agriculture is in and will empower us to move forward into a new paradigm where food is grown within a few miles and not a few thousand miles of where it is consumed. 

We are on the tipping point and our world is changing.  This article sums up nicely what we've been saying for years now! We are grateful to see this kind of encouraging news in print!  


25 August 2011

Lies I've Told My Students

Do You Know What Variety These Big Yellow Tomatoes Are?
You cannot grow large, beefsteak-style tomatoes close to the ocean - the cool off-shore flow and lack of heat will not allow the fruit to set.  So, if you try to grow beefsteak tomatoes near the ocean (Sunset Zone 24) you are wasting your time! This is what I read, this is what my experience has proven over and over again. And this is what I have taught my students for about 7 years.


These tomatoes were picked yesterday from The Learning Garden in a year that was not one of our warmest!  Beautiful and delicious tomatoes.  These were grown by the Venice High School students in their gardens without tags.  If I had known those vines were supposed to produce this size of tomatoes, I would have yanked the vines back in June.  But I didn't know and look at this.  Now, if I only knew what variety they were, I'd be saving seeds from them.


01 August 2011

Join David For Growing Food Class This Saturday

This Saturday, 06 August 2011, The Learning Garden presents: Growing Food In Southern California with David King. This 9 to 12 workshop centers on what to do in the coming months as Southern California heads into our 'other Spring' and one of our best, and least understood, growing seasons! You'll learn what to plant and how to plant it, what varieties go best here and why and all about getting the best garlic you will ever have! Dress to get into the garden and get dirty, The Learning Garden can be cool even in August, so dress in layers. Coffee and garden-made mint tea will be served please bring your own cup! Email or call 310.722.3656 for more information. No need to RSVP – class goes on no matter what!  $25 at the gate...


30 July 2011

Bees: An Essential Part of Our Food System

Ms Bee, Lacking a Horse, Pollinates a Borage Plant
A recent LA Times article detailed the death of a horse and the owner being severely stung by bees has drawn enough attention to warrant a reply.

The reason such a story becomes news is that it is uncommon. For some reason, unclear in the story, the bees attacked this man and his horse. It was doubtful that the attack was unprovoked and, because the man has a reason to not disclose anything he might have done to provoke the attack, we may never know the truth. But, from my personal experience of working with hives of bees and the many years of experience with bees by the people I associate with and our collective memory, we, to a person, allow that this is not consistent with the way we know bees to behave without some serious provocation. Because most Americans simply regard bees as something to be feared and really know very little about them, even preposterous stories about their behavior invoke no intelligent scrutiny.

But, OK. So the bees got pissed off – we don't know why – and they stung the horse to death and sent the owner off to the emergency room. This is only 'news' because it is rare. A horse killed on the freeway would be rare too, but a man sent to the ER because of injuries sustained on the freeway wouldn't be such a big deal – it wouldn't eve make a back page entry in the LA Times on a slow news day.

Bees are wild critters and they will attack anyone deemed to be threatening their hive. That's what they do. Our reaction to bees is, sadly, overwhelmingly based in fear born of ignorance. A healthy respect for all forms of life is imperative when dealing with the various forms of life we encounter – the more a person knows about bees, bears, wolves, or any form of wildlife, the better a person can deal with it and usually the more appreciation they will have for whatever species we have in mind.

My interactions with bees have been almost always positive. I have had two run-ins where I screwed up (both times) and got stung. I do not blame the bees. Each bee that stung me lost her life (all honey bees with stingers are female and the action of stinging disembowels her) and she lost her life protecting her hive with determination and skill. My work with bees has taught me so much about myself and has shown me some of my faults. I have come to admire these wonderful, essential creatures. The bees and the hive are like two living entities – as much as the cells in my body and two different entities – and the cell cannot live without the rest of the body, but the body needs a minimum number of cells to survive. So it is with the hive.

Most, if not all, hype that pumps up the fear about bees and other wild creatures is conscious fear mongering by those who profit from our fears. I have heard interviews with pest control companies where the president of one company vehemently admonished the radio personality to “very afraid of Africanized honey bees.” The purpose of which was nothing more than to drive listeners to the telephone to call his company every time any bee showed up at their property. After all, who can tell if it's an African bee or a European bee – I mean, I haven't been able to check passports on them. The intention was to frighten people to get ALL bees sprayed.

Never mind that the honey bee is in crises and lack of honey bees will severely impact our food supply. Honey bees have been dying at an alarming rate that has already impacted some crops and threatens shortages of many more. One of every third bite we eat comes to us through the pollinating efforts of honey bees. Mind you, there are other pollinators, and it is increasingly evident we will have to employ them in greater numbers while the honey bee populations plummet, but the honey bee has been the revered pollinator of choice for over a century because we have learned how to work with them and they have proven to be reliable partners even when we have abused them.

It appears to me that the survival of the honey bee is dependent on finding refuge in our cities. Our government has no backbone to contest the chemical and GMO farming lobby, so the honey bee is almost certainly doomed in our farmlands. In the city, where GMOs are not raised and pesticide application is confined mostly to lawns (is that sick or what?), honey bees stand a chance to become viable again. Actions taken by brazen law-breakers like Backwards Beekeepers are probably the greatest hope to keep viable populations of honey bees alive.

Got bees? Do not kill them! Contact a person who will keep them and insure those bees survive to breed more bees. Our way of life is dependent on the honey bee and her pollination of crops from apples to zucchini. Let's not take almonds, peaches, apricots, plums and many other fruits and vegetables away from the children of the future by compromising the honey bee's numbers to not be of service to mankind. Let's legalize beekeeping in all our cities and let's learn about the bees and be of service to them as well.

19 July 2011

Monsanto News Round Up...

A non-GMO tomato destined to be a Greek salad in a minute or two.
On Facebook, via the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF),  there is the news of the Good Food Awards, something we believe is important, because good, edible food is probably one of the most important allies we have in our fight to preserve old varieties of seeds and against Monsanto and agri-biz.  Mass produced stuff will never come close to clean, local food in winning the stomachs and taste buds of people.  The more people who are exposed to wholesome food, the more folks who are willing to stand with us and pay a little more for the food that is healthier and less destructive to the planet.  

The ground swell against genetically modified organisms (GMO's) seems to be growing world wide, even as the United States government rolls over and plays dead doing anything about GMO regulation. Farmers in Hungary are caught in the middle with their crops being plowed under because they planted GMO corn. We hope something will mitigate the destruction of their crops and income, but we applaud Hungary for taking a stand against the evils of GMO plants that are wind pollinated.  

The United States Department of Agriculture head,Tom Vilsak, a former employee of Monsanto, on the other hand has all but abdicated any consumer or environmental protection according to what we read today. This is especially hard to take in an administration that many of us had assumed would be less GMO friendly and more environmentally conscious.  The approval of GMO alfalfa almost certainly means that non-GMO cattle are going to become much more difficult to grow, putting GMO's in our meats and milk products, because the GMO pollen will infect adjacent fields, the same way GMO corn spreads its pollen far and wide. 
Monsanto has lied repeatedly about pollen spreading out of the fields planted with GMO corn - their estimates as to how far corn pollen can spread have been mere wishes in the heads of accountants, there was no corroborating evidence to back it up and current studies have proven that pollen contamination is a reality.  A reality that we can't turn back.  We will all eat GMO corn from the grocery stores for decades to come even if GMO corn is permanently pulled from the farmers fields today.  If you buy prepared foods from any supermarket, including the likes of Whole Foods, you will find it is created using GMO corn and soybeans.  If you read 'corn' or 'soy' on the package, simply know it is GMO - we don't get the luxury of choosing because marking 'GMO' or 'non-GMO' on a package isn't legal and if it is from a chain store, there is not enough non-GMO corn and soy being produced to be used consistently across their distribution.

A paper in the AgBio Forum postulates:  "Another aspect of the GM debate concerns implications of GM pollen drift. Pollen drift takes place when the pollen (and, subsequently, genes) of one plant is transported, via wind, water, sun, or pollinators such as honey bees, to another plant (Dafni, Kevan, & Husband, 2005). Although pollen drift often occurs in nature and plants have been swapping genes for centuries, it has become a matter of concern in the GM/non-GM crop debate because this type of genetic transfer can lead to "introduction into ecosystems of genes that confer novel fitness-related traits…[and] also allows novel genes to be introduced into many diverse types of crops, each with its own specific potential to outcross" (Snow, 2002, p. 542). Results from this could range from minor to catastrophic and could potentially have major impacts on (a) agriculture, such as the elimination of non-GM seeds from the seed stock; (b) health, if mingling occurs unwitting ingestion of allergens could transpire, and; (c) the economy, since there may be fiscal or legal liabilities associated with selling incorrectly labeled products."

Of course, we believe that this GMO experiment will fall of its own weight - the problem is, how much of a disaster will that be when it does happen?  
There are several reasons to believe that it will be a disaster, not the least is the results of the Green Revolution which was always seen as some massive success; a film on the continuing legacy of that disaster is available here.  The problem is how measure success - and when.  If one looks into the data for the years when the Green Revolution was initiated, the success is so overwhelming that we should be able to rejoice that hunger was solved for all time - of course, we know that isn't the case.  The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides was so overwhelming that farmers laden with new hybrids could not afford these inputs and the loss of diverse plantings of their own local foodcrops (because FAO was only measuring output in commercial crops, crops that could be commodities on the world market, not crops that could actually be eaten by the farmer or traded in the local market) destroyed the local agriculture.  The result is that after a five year window, production is not only nothing near the levels we were led to believe, but the lives of the farmers are compromised.  We took independent farmers and made them slaves to the same system that is bankrupting our farmers (and has for centuries), giving rise to the lie that you have to 'get big or get out.'  The truth is a small farm (or garden) is much more productive per acre than a big farm! (Sourced from Robert Rodale's "Save Three Lives" which should be required reading for anyone interested in solving world hunger.)

Monsanto has proven, secondly, that they are one of the world's biggest and most unfair bullies.  The cases against many farmers are a matter of record at this point and are far too numerous to discount.  (I heard some Monsanto apologist deride Percy Schmeiser as being a 'scumbag,' and you can say that about an individual farmers, but after a point, how many farmers are scumbags and who's pointing at whom?  For the record, I heard Mr. Schmeiser speak once and found him humble and sincere - if he is as bad as Monsanto wishes he were, he deserves an Emmy or something.)  There are too many farmers sued or hushed up to take this lightly; Monsanto seems to follow the Church of Scientology's lead on pro-active suing of nay-sayers.  Now the Securities Exchange Commission has begun an investigation, of course an investigation proves nothing until the verdict is made.  Still, if their past is any indication, Monsanto's own ruthlessness may come home to roost.

Thirdly, the health implications to humans of GMO technology has not been investigated let alone proven one way or another. There are NO long term studies on any aspect of GMO pollution in our bodies or our world.  One has to suspect a supposed 'wonderful new technology' that has yet to be vetted in any way long term.  If our fears are unfounded, then allow long term testing to go forward FIRST and prove us wrong! 

And finally, GMOs are just plain wrong.  Even if you can find ways to wiggle out of the environmental damage they will surely create (see the BioAg paper above), they will fail because they can't do what they claim they can do. Already reports are in about failed harvests, harvests that fail to attain anything close to parity with existing crops  and now the new super weeds have arrived on the scene - weeds that are immune to Monsanto's RoundUp and that spells doom and gloom for this current formulation.  Monsanto's scientists are already working on RoundUp Two, or RoundUp 2012 or whatever they will call it, but it doesn't take an agronomist to see the futility of this conundrum; better herbicides equal better weeds and that's all, with ever increasing pollution and ever increasing questionable health out-comes for the planet and those eating the products of these seeds.  

It's apparent our government will not do anything constructive to at least gain us some sort of testing of this technology before foisting it on us.  The things we CAN do are limited, and imperfect at best, but we need to try to eat as little of this stuff as possible.  That means limiting our eating out to a very small select eateries that buy from small farmers that avoid GMO seeds and eating mostly from our own gardens and the gardens of our friends.  That, of course, means, we have to grow gardens - larger gardens and learn to garden for most of our own calories.  OK, so we can't do that today?  Move in that direction and keep moving in that direction.  Learn how to save seeds so we preserve the heritage seeds of the past that are free of GMO technology and will reproduce in your garden.  Gardening this way is the way we preserve a future and is the surest way to strike back - it's a duty to the generations behind us and it's revolutionary.  

We all need to eat.  I think I'm making myself a Greek salad - GMO free!


02 July 2011

Time To Kiss My Amazon Goodbye...

Dear Amazon,

I think you goofed badly. I don't know of any business model that suggests you terminate your very large sales force that worked hard for you for practically nothing and give them over to your competitors to work against you. And it's a sad thing because many of us were not wanting to switch, we wanted to keep working for you for next to nothing.

But you forced our hands.

The loser in the tax standoff with my state of California is you, Amazon. Because I'm going to move EVERYTHING to Barnes and Noble - not just my referrals, but my wish list and my gift list and all of my business because having one bookstore simplifies my busy life and I don't need anything more complicated. Besides, Amazon, I think it's more than fair that you collect the tax and forward it to my state which is in some financial difficulty - you might have heard about this in the news.  I personally believe we should pay our taxes and I believe the country we call the 'best in the world' must be paid for - it is as good as it is because someone paid taxes as much as someone fought in a war.  It is more patriotic to pay taxes than it is to wave the flag or suck down beers while watching fireworks.  For this and many other reasons, Amazon, you are on the wrong side of history and the shady side of 'right.'

And sooner or later, Amazon, you WILL be collecting sales tax for each state and it won't be nearly as onerous as you claim today, but when that happens, I'll be happy with the Barnes and Nobel interface and I'll not want to come back to you and relearn how to do things your way.

I'm sure I'm not alone. I think you have done one of the most idiotic things a business can do; give thousands of devoted customers to your competitors - customers that have proven they read and they read a lot, customers that are willing to suggest others to go to your site and buy books (or whatever) from you. And, you collect sales tax on purchases for some of the 'stores' inside your corporate umbrella - so you know how to do it and it's not the big smelly dead fish you want us to believe it is.

So, Amazon, I don't get it. You've pissed me off enough to set up my account with Barnes and Nobel - in the coming days, I'll remove my wish lists and all the other bonds I've had with you since 1998. And it'll be goodbye. No more boxes in my mail from you. It's a very sad day for me.

But I'm sure me and my new bookstore will soon understand each other and in a few months, I'll be well on my way to building a twenty year relationship with them and not you.

You see how stupid you were?


Garden Rant agrees with me, read Amy Stewart's response to a similar letter.

26 June 2011

The Forsaken Garden: The Food Humanity Forgot, Part 3

The diversity of F1 Two Mary Corn
Years ago, when I first started teaching plant propagation for UCLA Extension, I bought a book called, Breed Your Own Vegetables by Carol Deppe. It proved a bit daunting and I put it down. I didn't care for the lessons in Mendelian genetics. I had taught Mendelian genetics before in a general botany class and, though I understood it, it wasn't my cup of tea and so I put Deppe's book down and it collected dust on my shelf.

Last year, with the seed library idea singing it's siren song in my ear, I pulled the book off the shelf again because of it's full title, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving (this is probably about the tenth time I've written about this book in one of my blogs, you get the idea that my copy is well worn!) I pulled the book off the shelf and was immediately impressed with Deppe's writing, filled with warm and engaging descriptions of the seeds and stories she told that illustrated her points. After getting through the seed saving half of the book, I began to stick a toe filled with trepidation in the breeding half.

As I studied seed saving, it was obvious to me that a seed saver is already a defacto plant breeder: It may not be an overtly dedicated breeding program, but simply by saving the seed from plant A (it was taller and had more fruit) instead of plant B, one has bred in favor of the genetic make up of plant A vs. plant B. So all seed savers are plant breeders, even if only 'passive' plant breeders.

After my week long immersion in seed school, I am convinced more than ever that breeding plants for organic food production has got to be the next frontier for me and I hope I can convince a lot more folks to join me. I mean the active kind of plant breeding – the kind that starts at the beginning of the growing season with intention to create a new variety and goes through season after season to achieve the goal of a new variety.

Two Mary Corn
A couple of years ago, we had two Mary's volunteering at The Learning Garden. They met there and became roommates for a time – both were good solid gardeners. One year, they started seeds of corn and after the corn had germinated, found they needed to move and had no place to plant it. They gave about forty growing corn plants to me. I grew them out and the diversity was astounding (first picture, above). I saved that seed, but I was intimidated about breeding corn and never took it forward. Now, I know what to do and I am eager to pull that seed out again and begin to breed it out to be true. That is project number one. It is only to breed out some of the more beautiful corn seeds for a gorgeous corn. The picture of one of the ears can be seen as a heading (L A Garden Blog) or back drop (Record of The Seed Library of Los Angeles) on two blogs I help author. The working name for this corn is Two Mary Corn. Still looking for a good name, but that'll do for my notes.

'Purple Maize''
The one that has totally captured my imagination has a working name of Purple Maize. Sorry, I can't help it. If I am successful, don't worry, it will not be released as 'Purple Maize.' I'll find another name for it before then. This is a corn from the collection of Native Seed/SEARCH, unfortunately an unmarked ear, that is a purple colored dent corn. Dent corn is a combination between a flour corn and a flint corn. I just learned the difference this last week at Seed School. Flour corns are softer and are preferred as the source for flour. Flint corns are harder and can be used like flour corns but they are harder to grind and are therefore not the first choice. However, that hardness insures that they will keep better so most folks dealing with subsistence agriculture were inclined to grow both.

The two come together in a 'dent' corn. A dent corn has the interior of a flour corn with the exterior of a flint. The two dry differently with the flour giving up more moisture than the flint causing the kernel to have a 'dent,' a rather pr0nounced dimple, at the top of the kernel. They have a reputation for being highly productive corns – in fact, from the 1890's to the 1920's, THE corn American farmers grew was Reid's Dent, a charming story I'll write down one day soon. Reid's Dent was superseded by the beginning of the hybrid era which continues through today. This corn, collected from the Native American gardens of America's south west is most assuredly a drought tolerant corn and only a chance cross between a flour and flint corn, in other words, not a stable cross and the resulting seeds are as likely to be a flour or flint as well as a dent.

There is no listing for a purple dent corn in the Native Seed/SEARCH database, but here was this one ear. Purple can be equated with higher levels of anthocyanins. If one could breed a corn that was high in anthocyanins, stored well and produced abundantly, one might have a hit on his hands. Or, in the words of the Tucson gardening community, spoken with a tongue firmly in cheek, “Rich, Rich, Rich! It's going to make us Rich, Rich, Rich!” Of course, nothing in plant breeding does these days and I would be happy enough to breed a useful plant that helps us actually assuage hunger rather than sell more herbicides.

Corn breeding is harder than tomato or pepper breeding, because corn cannot be inbred too much before one gets a very negative feedback from the corn in weak and unproductive plants. I am starting with only a few seeds, so the first year is to grow out enough seeds to begin to experiment – of course, I will only select to plant corn seed that continues to exhibit the purple dent characteristics. It is important to note that I will need 200 or more plants in the second year in order to not experience the negative effects of inbreeding. The good news is that the plants can be located in different gardens. So, I'll be looking around for places I can plant something like forty plants in to achieve my 200 plant minimum.

But we need more plants being bred – we need plants that can survive drought, hotter temperatures (many pollens die at higher temperatures, we need to find look for pollen with more tolerance to heat), plants that remain upright despite harsher storms. All these are likely scenarios in the coming decades because of global climate change. These are plants that will produce the food the world will need in the coming years.

This is the work that will prevent hunger and starvation – not the work of Big Ag and their dependence on oil and patents. If I get a new variety of corn, yes, I WILL patent it. But I'll patent it so it cannot be patented by someone else. I'll give the patent to the Seed Library of Los Angeles or some other philanthropic conscious group.

What would you breed if you had the chance? You probably can do it! And remember, if you fall short, you can still eat the results! I hope you are excited too!


22 June 2011

The Forsaken Garden: The Food Humanity Forgot, Part 2

Corn is one of the most hybridized plants in our world today, but most of the hybrids developed in the past 50 years has nothing I want in my garden.  This ancient race of corn, at present not precisely identified, from the Native Seed/SEARCH collection does have traits I want: It is a dent corn, meaning it has the keeping qualities of a flint combined with the finer grain of a flour corn.  The blue tint holds higher nutrition. One of my projects now is to develop a blue (higher nutrition), dent corn (longer shelf life and finer grain - dents also tend to be among the more productive corn races). I have two corn breeding projects on the books right now.

Even by the time the professionals were breeding plants – before the genetic modification started – the intent was no longer to breed plants for any kind of long term strategy. Just like modern Wall Street, the idea became to get in, make a buck and not be around when the thing imploded. Home gardeners and food consumers became the victims of this make-a-buck strategy. Mind you, the mantra of the promoters of this type of agricultural advancement was: Cheap food – at any price. And no other country bought it up the same way Americans did. And still do. What's the best food store has almost always been the cheapest – a mold that is being broken by Whole Foods Market and that's about the only bone I'll throw them.

It's an odd thing that among 1st World Countries, Americans are the most likely to think food has to be cheap. And, in that guise, we went along for it. Cheap and easy was our national anthem from way before the American Revolution. But the trade offs were huge! Nutrition and taste were not important and were not considered as a 'desirable' outcome of the research.

During this time, the old kind of plant breeding comprised an ever shrinking portion of the plant breeding. And while modern science was breeding in disease resistance to tomatoes and other vegetables, the open pollinated plants were left alone. “Breeding resistance” into plants is another way to describe “breeding more virulent diseases” because, as the plants become resistant, diseases co-evolve to take on the new, improved plants. The net effect of this is that our cherished heirlooms have been compromised by a lack of disease resistance to diseases that weren't around when our treasured plants were being bred.

Now is the time to move beyond 'saving heirlooms.' That is old hat. We have saved a lot of them. Now, we must begin to move beyond just 'saving' them. We must begin to adapt them to our world. We need to confer disease resistance on these tasty and rich jewels of cuisine if we are going to be able to keep them and if they will be the basis of an agriculture that keeps us from starving when the chemicated, profit driven agriculture turns on us by failing to deliver – which it will do sooner or later.

So the challenge before us is to do the work of breeding disease resistance from the hybrids (not the GMOs – which is a different critter altogether and among our people is considered a contamination. There are many hybrids out there from which we can cull disease resistance or other qualities we find desirable in our food. In other words, the word 'hybrid' cannot be a bad or nasty word – we have come to a place where the word 'hybrid' has been far too demonized. It is true that the recent history of hybrids is tied in with the mad rush for profit, but the word itself simply means the 'product of a cross.' Hence most of our rich diverse, collection of open-pollinated plants are all hybrids; the difference that needs to be noted is that the open-pollinated plants are stable crosses – whereas the hybrids of the dollar are unstable crosses – in other words, they have not been grown out for successive generations to insure the good qualities are there to stay.

This work has begun already.  Organic Seed Alliance in Oregon and Practical Farmers of Iowa both have breeding programs, although both are focused on farming crops. 

Many organizations have been saving all this marvelous germplasm that is the basis for this work.  We need to get busy - not only in continuing to save the germplasm, but also to breed resistance to the delicious tasting food our ancestors left for us. We need to be true to this treasure and the way best to do that is to not only save it as it is, but to breed it to compete in this modern world and produce fruit reliably and honestly for our children and their children.


21 June 2011

The Forsaken Garden: The Food Humanity Forgot, Part 1

For all of the history of agricultural civilization, the farmers and gardeners saved their seeds to have something to plant next year.  As soon as humankind began to depend on crops grown in tended fields, saving seeds was as much a part of the process as was planting seeds the following growing season. 

This is the way it was, each generation of humans selecting the seeds that would be the food of the following year.  In this manner, humans were 'breeding' their crops for characteristics they found desirable.  Larger grains, resistance to falling apart in the field before they could be harvested and so on.  It was not called 'breeding' but it was breeding.  Every choice to save one seed over the others in the basket or on the plant was a decision that carried some genetic information forward and left others to be eaten. 

We know this is true because ethnobotanists can look into the detritus of past civilizations and tell within a few years of when a crop becomes domesticated.  The change from a wild seed crop to a domesticated seed crop is dramatic and fairly rapid.  Seed heads become more uniform, the seeds are larger, they don't fall apart easily in the field and other characteristics clearly delineate the departure from 'natural selection' to human selection.

It continues this way over all history.  Up until about the 1950's.  In the late 1800's seed companies sprang up to help people experience other seeds, lending a diversification that gardens hadn't been able to have unless the owner traveled a bit or had connections in other parts of the land.  The average gardener didn't have access to anything that wasn't local.  But seed companies made a lot of seed available to these gardeners and expanded the ability of regions to grow seed adapted to their areas from other similar climates that may not be nearby.  

Still, barring a disaster, once a gardener purchased the seed, the gardener would save seeds for future plantings until some other seed tantalizingly calls to be planted (we all know what that feels like). Seed companies also tried to breed new plants to be able to offer something new each year.  This was the heyday of many great American seed companies that became institutions, like Burpee, introductions we are all familiar with were bred at Burpee's Fordhook Farm - including Fordhook Swiss Chard.  Other plants were bred by a horde amateur seed breeders - including the mechanic 'Radiator Charlie' who paid off his house with sales of seeds of his  "Mortgage Lifter" tomato.

I remember many winters as a child in Kansas, sitting in front of Grandpa's woodstove with snow all over the garden.  I went through the Burpee catalog, Park Seeds and many other seed proprietor catalogs underlining dozens of plants I wanted Grandpa to order for the coming year - I read each catalog hundreds of times, memorizing the descriptions and the names and adoring every single variety - the Burpee catalog in those days was many, many more pages long than it is today.  Grandpa never did, by the way.  He saved his own seeds for the most part and, if he needed more seed, he bought locally.  I didn't understand this until I was an adult growing my own seeds and feeling a little sheepish at how demanding I was about ordering seeds that Grandpa didn't want or need.

Up until the 1950's, one thing that was true of ALL plant breeding was done by amateur plant breeders. Sometime around the 1950's breeding began to fall into the hands of college educated plant breeders - people well versed with genetic backgrounds - and the beginning of commercial funding of science research.  The focus shifted from regional seed production to national and international seed sales and companies more interested in profit than in 'traditional values' of the older seed breeders.  Run on that Republican traditional value politicians!  

This became the years of the hybrids and crop yields went through the roof!  But the concentration was entirely on bushels per acre and very little else.  In many cases the plants required disease resistance in order to produce well and that was bred into the plants.  I don't want to disparage many advances made in this time frame because a lot of valuable work was done that should not be thrown out simply because the primary interest was in selling hybrid seeds.  

Mind you, to me, the line was crossed with genetically modifying plant seeds.  And patenting seeds. This is one more of the incursions the 'industrial' model of agriculture.  Once the industrial model was applied to agriculture, and profit became the only motive, agriculture as a whole was set adrift, and no part was more adrift than plant breeding.  The point was to make profit and keep making profit for as long as possible.  Hence, patents were 'necessary' and positive traits, valuable to individual gardeners and farmers and the eventual consumers (like taste) became lost in the race for profit.  By the time I became an adult gardener in the 1980's, seeds no longer were the seeds of my grandfather.

More on this tomorrow: the next frontier for garden seeds.

for the Seed library of Los Angeles, SLOLA

19 June 2011

Greener Gardens Offered By UCLA Extension in Summer Quarter

Orchid Black and I on a field trip Spring Quarter 2010, the last time we taught ‘Greener Gardens: Sustainable Garden Practice’ 

UCLA Extension offers this class in Summer Quarter this year, starting Thursday, June 23, 6:30 PM in Botany 325, on the UCLA campus. People who take this class will get the benefit of the breadth of experience that each of us brings to sustainability in the garden. This class fulfills an elective for the certificate programs in both Horticulture and Global Sustainability.

We will cover sustainable design, soils,  swales and earthworks, 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.

The UCLA Extension catalog, lists the class as follows:

“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. … “

I taught this course as a half elective on my own for two years before being able to team up with Orchid. Her knowledge and effective teaching puts this class into its own league.  Orchid is an award winning designer of California Native gardens, a delegate to the state-wide organization of the California Native Plant Society and did excellent work on the Los Angeles County Native Oak Ordinance Working Group. She has studied water issues for several years and has a keen understanding of the problems we face around that issue. She blogs at Native Sanctuary.

On another front, I return to Los Angeles on Sunday the 26th and be a panelist for the upcoming Dwell on Design event.  In the mix of the events right now, I was quoted by the Los Angeles Times in their article on the Seed Library of Los Angeles. 

Here’s a link to UCLA Extension page for the class, which still has a few spaces open:

13 May 2011

Resilient Food Systems Begin with Locally Adapated Seed

I have been reading a The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe - she's the one who wrote 'Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving' which I love so much.  Deppe is a wonderful thinker and I love the concept of honing our gardening skills to be better gardeners when times are good so we can carry on when times aren't so good.  She makes a good case for this kind of thinking using examples from her own life and from the greater society. 

Resilience has become a buzzword because of the Transition Town movement that started in England.  I allow that resiliency is a good goal, but it's a tricky one to achieve here in Los Angeles, dependent so much, as we are, on imported water and the electricity it takes to get it here.  Still, allowing for that, Fred Kirschenmann has written a blog post on saving seeds as one of the first steps in developing a resilient gardening paradigm.  
The blog post and the book are both well worth your time.


21 April 2011

How Mulch Is Too Mulch?

A fresh load of compost/mulch was delivered at The Learning Garden and I got to run my fingers through this stuff right off the truck!  Gardeners love the way this stuff smells.  Mere humans often dislike it. Compost can be a mulch - it is not necessarily 'mulch' but can be used as one. 

Jeanne Kuntz is preparing a post for over at Mar Vista Patch using a clever play on the word 'mulch' (Mulch to be Grateful For) so, I couldn't resist getting a little punny here.

A bit of Q & A between myself and Jeanne follows:  

JK:  How does mulch condition the soil?

When mulch is laid on soil, it stops sun rays from hitting the soil and baking the top layer.  The mulch also prevents water evaporation by breaking the water column in the soil.  (Water molecules stick together and 'pull' water through the soil.  In evaporation, one molecule evaporating causes the next molecule to move towards the surface to evaporated.  When the soil medium is no longer homogeneous, i.e. mulch on top has a different consistency than the soil, the water column is broken and evaporation of below- surface water is stopped.) 

But mulch's big contribution to the soil is that it provides food for a whole host of critters in the soil that break the mulch down.  Mulch feeds the micro and macro life of the soil and THAT increases soil's fertility.  One of the main critters chowing down on the mulch is the earthworm.  The earthworm makes a tunnel from below to the surface to chow at the mulch banquet, grabbing a plateful, which the earthworm carries below the surface, creating yet another tunnel.  Many earthworms = many tunnels - painlessly, effortlessly creating the same delicious soil tilth we used to double dig, breaking out back, to achieve.  I've got garden beds that have never been dug and you can easily put your hand into them as though I had spent days out there sweating by double digging.  

What is the main difference between the various types of mulch?

Well, 'mulch' is technically anything you put on the surface of the soil to protect it.  That includes rocks and plastic and other materials.  We are, I think, talking about 'organic mulches' - the ones that used to be plant material (leaves, wood chips, compost or even bagged materials like 'organic compost' or 'planters mix') and they have differing effects on the soil.  If it is broken down to the point of being more black than not, it does what I was saying above.  The differing mulches will contribute slightly different nutrients to the soil, but, in the main, there isn't much difference in their action - some will break down more slowly and some more quickly, but they will all break down and feed your soil biota.

JK:  Is there are difference between how one uses mulch for edibles vs ornamental plantings?

I wouldn't think so.  I think mulch in flower borders is much more attractive than dirt - it saves water and cuts down on the need of fertilizers.  I add mulch about three inches deep in spring and in fall and that's all I add to my garden, ornamental or veggie. 

JK:  Is the mulch you have at The Learning Garden at Venice High School available to the public?
The Learning Garden's mulch is from Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation and is delivered to us because we make it available to the community at large.We are open Wednesday through Sunday, from about 10 to about 5:00 - I say 'about' because I'm there alone and if I have to pick something up from the hardware store or go to lunch, that means we're closed for that amount of time.   

And by the way The Beautiful Food Garden Blog turns three today!  Thank all of you for your support!


18 February 2011

Loss of a Mentor

Jim Otterstrom died January 22nd, his memorial service will be held in his home town of Big Bear. 

Jim, and his wife Peggy, became my friends through my association with Orchid Black. They were close friends of hers, living a lifestyle that closely approximates her dreams. I spent only a few hours with Jim and Peggy, but found them to be like-spirits and I too admired their car-less life that had such low impact on the earth. Jim took fantastic photos and posted them to his blog. Peruse some of them if you will.

Orchid will read some poetry and I will play a couple of songs in the memorial service. He had head me play these songs the first night I met him and he approved of them. Music and art of all kinds figured large in Jim's life. The memorial service has been lovingly titled, “Otter-Strum” with a large of host of talented musicians of all flavors.

I wish I had many more hours with Jim in his garden, with his chickens and in their home. It inspired me to press on with my personal vision of how my life will be. I owe him a debt that will probably only be repaid by living the life of my own dreams, in my own way, on my own land.

I am grateful that I was offered the opportunity of knowing Jim Otterstrom. 


The Calendar of Events At The Learning Garden