Friday, January 29, 2010

Blight, Famine, and Biodiversity

Thomas over at A Growing Tradition had mentioned the Irish Potato famine in a recent post. I have read so much conflicting information on the famine (and it's lack of potato diversity) that I had to look further into these reports.  It seems as though the poor relied on "lumper" potatoes in particular for their higher yields, so there we have the source, and evidence of the 'monoculture' theory.  There were however many varieties of potatoes grown in all of Ireland.  One report listed 12 varieties grown in a town outside of Dublin alone, but this diversity seemed to have dwindled over decades, so by the 40's the poor and overly populated areas were heavily reliant on genetically similar or identical varieties.  The largest case of monoculture in Ireland was the lack of crop diversity for the poor as a whole, crops such as oats were abandoned entirely or exported, leaving the people of Ireland to perish as they relied so heavily on one crop.  Blight hit other countries, including the Eastern United States, but thanks to the numerous variety of crops grown the devastation was not as great. The Irish seem to have been doomed by their sole reliance on the potato, which was then magnified by large areas being further reliant on lumpers only (reports cited anywhere from 1/3 to 90% of the population surviving on potatoes when the famine years hit).  Below is the original article I had read which sparked my interest in this subject many months ago.

From Heronswood Nursery, click the post title to see the article in it's entirety:
Records show that northern Europe was battered by persistently gloomy springs, summers and autumns interrupted only by the typical dark winters.  This weather—of which we’ve received a 5-month dose—so favored late blight that all but a fraction of Ireland’s potato crop was devastated for several consecutive years.  It is hardly known that the rest of Europe and the United States suffered from potato losses only slightly less devastating than those that occurred in Ireland.  The tragic difference was that these other parts of Europe and the United States had a more diverse food crop base than did Ireland, where over a million people starved and from which several million emigrated over the subsequent decade.
Even lesser known is the surprising fact that, contrary to conventional wisdom, in the 1840s there were nearly two dozen distinct potato cultivars grown throughout Ireland and over fifty in the rest of Europe.  Far from the popular image of a “monoculture”, potatoes grown in Ireland included a diverse group of white, yellow, pink, brown and red skinned varieties. These had been collected both in the wild and from native markets in South America and deposited in the botanical gardens of Europe over 300 years before the famine.  While it is certainly true that many of these various cultivars existed within a “type” of all-purpose boiling and mashing potato, it’s also true that, out of this quite diverse gene pool, post-famine “survivors” appeared.  These became the ancestors of new and resistant potato cultivars grown to this very day.*
Therefore, the first lesson to be learned from the near collapse of so many fields of tomatoes on farms and in home gardens dotted across the northeastern United States, is that no normal diversity of cultivars or genetic variation can resist an aggressive, virulent strain of the late blight organism under conditions that nurture its explosive growth and dispersal.
However, there is a second lesson that is of—literally—great value.  Modern hybrid tomatoes—carefully and deliberately developed over many years—possess sufficient vigor to withstand all sorts of diseases, including a particularly destructive and widespread attack of late blight.
This is vividly demonstrated in the high survival rates of hybrid tomatoes throughout the hardest hit growing regions.  In our trial gardens at Fordhook Farm, we see rows of old-fashioned heirlooms and open-pollinated market varieties of tomatoes lying in heaps of wilted foliage and diseased fruit, and—just a few feet away—rows of healthy hybrid plants loaded with heavy, flawless fruit.
As the name implies, late blight generally occurs later in the season.  It has never occurred this early nor been so widespread in the United States; last year there were only a few reported incidences of the disease.  The same varieties of tomato have been grown in the Northeast for years, and the various stains of the disease-causing organism have likewise been present for years.  However, our recent, freakishly unseasonable weather has been ideal for the growth of the organism and the spread of the disease. 
If the spring and summer of 2009 is followed in succession by similar seasons in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, we could face a complete extinction of many—not all—of the old-fashioned heirlooms and open-pollinated tomato varieties that folks in the Northeast have come to enjoy since those varieties were reintroduced in the early 1980s.  However, just as there were survivors among the potato varieties that succumbed during the years of the great famine and which gave rise to the modern, resistant potatoes of today, so the hybrid tomatoes of the 20th century as well as those of the early 21st century will be the saving grace of tomato lovers everywhere.  We might even discover utterly new sources of resistance, although that will probably come from wild, weedy relatives of tomato and potato.  It’s the silver lining of, quite literally, a very dark storm cloud.
Media stories about the monolithic food industry, Big Agriculture, “bioengineering”, and “industrial farms” ill inform us of the virtues of modern agriculture and obscure the role of plant breeding as a science and discipline.  Plant breeders who work in productive crops such as wheat, corn, rice, potatoes, and the wide range of vegetables and fruits upon which the world depends, struggle toward their various goals with many positive purposes in mind.  One of the most important of these is disease resistance.
Plant breeding is ancient.  In its essence, it was probably practiced before agriculture was widespread.  Early nomadic people may have saved seed that was larger or that was easily separated from unwanted parts, carried it with them, and planted it far from its source.  In this way, they honed plant characteristics that were useful to them.
Plant breeding has its formal roots in the work of the humble Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, who with the common pea first demonstrated predictable patterns in the transmission of genetic traits.  Since Mendel, plant breeding has progressed to the point that scientists are able to breed food crops that can thrive in salty water and deep shade and withstand a host of pests while, at the same time, yield abundant and delicious produce.  It has been due to the skill of the plant breeder that plants have been selected and hybridized so that they require less water, less space, less fertilizer, and less protective chemicals.  This is the height of human discernment.
Society should cherish the human ability to select different traits from various plant populations and mix them together, just as Nature would under ideal circumstances.  Call plant breeders the “nuclear physicists” of the biology world.

* To elaborate, let’s take Ireland in the 1840s.  In a nation smaller than the state of Maine, the Irish had raised potatoes for at least 125 years.  Within the two-dozen distinct or unique varieties, there was a wide variation due to the separate and diverse genetic background of each cultivar.  They differed in tuber size, tuber shape, size of yield, time of yield, quality of tuber (wet or dry), color of skin, color of flesh, thickness of skin, ability to tolerate bad soils (hard or low in nutrients, etc.) and ability to remain viable in long periods of storage.

Dizzy yet?
More interesting to my point is that they differed also in resistance to heat, to cold and to frost.  Plus, they varied in resistance to a virus called “Leaf Curl”, as well as to a tendency of tubers to develop warts, and—most important—to fungi and molds.  This last genetic variability proved decisive in providing the post-famine Irish with new varieties—based partly on the surviving potatoes—that would replace those that lacked the strength to fight off late blight, a phenomenally destructive plant disease caused by a water mold or more technically an Oomycete.
So, an interesting question might be:  Do today’s potato farmers of Maine—an area substantially greater than the size of Ireland—grow 22 distinct cultivars?  For those of you in the south, Ireland would fit comfortably in South Carolina.  For midwesterners and westerners, two “Irelands” would fit in Wisconsin, and three would fit in Oregon—with Connecticut tossed in.  Rather than the Irish farmer in the 1840s, could it be the contemporary potato farmer who best exemplifies a “dependency” on a handful of cultivars? 
Thanks to the noted historian Redcliffe Salaman, here is a list of the “top ten” varieties of the nearly two-dozen potatoes grown in tiny Ireland in 1839:
1. Champion aka Congo aka The Cup:  a red skinned, cream fleshed, early to mid season, medium sized tuber; extremely popular due to its flavor and nutrition.  A bit hard to digest, so it was mainly sold to people in towns and cities where it got above average prices.  (A much later progeny of Champion, “Flourball”, proved easier to digest, as well as blight resistant.)
2. Howard aka Cluster aka The Turk:  White skinned and white fleshed, great in poor soils, forming medium sized tubers on short stolons in tight clusters.  It was very popular with rural people and the poor.  It was early to mid season and turned out to be somewhat resistant to blight, i.e., not all plants succumbed, and many were entirely resistant.
3. Irish Apple Red:  Red skinned, late and also somewhat long-keeping in storage.  Very dry tubers rather than wet—perfect for both boiling and mashing to which milk could be added.  Extremely popular and well liked, due to tuber quality and storage, but also because it produced crops in the mid July to late August period when most other varieties of its kind did not.  Susceptible to fungal diseases and very hard hit by late blight during the famine, it has virtually disappeared from cultivation.
4. Irish Apple White:  White skinned version of #3.
5. Kerr’s Pink aka White Kidney:  Very early, small to medium sized tubers with pink skin and white flesh.  Could be double-cropped in some areas.  Good tuber quality for all-around purposes.  Some but not good blight resistance.
6. Lumper aka Leinster Wonder:  Extremely productive, versatile variety that was, therefore, popular with the poor.  White skinned and white fleshed tubers of medium size and poor to average quality.  Early to mid to late season.  Minimal resistance to blight.  Legendary in famine history due to popularity with poor, who comprised nearly all the starvation dead.
7. The Manly:  Medium to large tubers with white flesh and brownish tan skin.  Extremely productive main or mid season variety that would produce record weight harvests.  Average tuber quality, but was popular due to high yields.
8. The Noble Ox:  Very large tubers that some described as “ugly”, some were also misshaped.  Dark brown to almost “black” skin and white flesh, very productive with continuous yields mid to late season.  Virus resistance and some blight resistance recorded.  Used for both human and dairy cow consumption.
9. The Yam aka Surinam:  Red skinned with red streaked flesh.  Variable sized from medium to large.  Was considered very flavorful and attractive, sold well in towns and cities, less in rural areas.
10. The Lapstone Kidney:  White skin and tuber, “mid early” which was popular due both to its niche harvest time, and to its outstanding ability to keep well for almost a year in storage.  Also, it was medium to higher yielding with high quality, long, medium-sized tubers.
Remember:  the potato farmers of Ireland grew more than twice this number of diverse cultivars—hardly the “monoculture” characterized in recent popular history.  In fact, they turned out to be the single most influential group of farmers in modern history.  It was the tragedy of the Great Potato Famine that spurred worldwide interest in plant genetics and led, indirectly, to the popularization of not only Mendel, but also Darwin.

Another snippet from Victory Seeds:

To increase their harvest, farmers came to rely heavily on one variety, the lumper. While the lumper was among the worst tasting types, it was remarkably fertile, with a higher per-acre yield than other varieties. Economist Cormac Ó Gráda estimates that on the eve of the famine, the lumper and one other variety, the cup, accounted for most of the potato crop. For about 3 million people, potatoes were the only significant source of food, rarely supplemented by anything else.
It was this reliance on one crop--and especially one variety of one crop--that made the Irish vulnerable to famine. As we now know, genetic variation helps protect against the decimation of an entire crop by pests, disease, or climate conditions. Nothing shows this more poignantly than Ireland's agricultural history.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a Dublin Society survey recorded at least a dozen varieties of potato cultivated in the county of Kilkenny alone. Then, adults could still remember when most of the poor raised oats, barley, or rye, along with beans and other green vegetables. But according to Ó Gráda, this diversity had largely disappeared by the 1840s. He notes that while some people warned that Ireland's reliance on potatoes might prove disastrous, no one likely conceived of a famine as complete as what occurred. The poor certainly could not; it is doubtful they could have avoided it anyway, given the social and political conditions of their lives.

So there you have it!  here are some interesting pieces of information on Late Blight I came across along the way I wanted to note:

  • Early potato varieties are very vulnerable; plant early so they can be harvested before blight season hits (typically July).
  • There are now 2 strains of blight, there was only one until the 1970's.  
  • Phytophthora has been studied or held as a biological weapon in many countries, including the U.S. and Russia. 

Saturday, January 23, 2010

1st Seed Sowing of the Year/ Seed Sowing 101

The Biodynamic Sowing Calendar shows Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday as root days, meaning that is the part of the plant enhanced by the Moon or planets.  So today (a fruit day) I decided to begin my 2010 gardening season.  Early?  yes.  A few couple of my onions like 10-12 weeks of growing before being set out in late April.  The spinach and kale will go under cover (either under reemay and plastic, or in the cold-frame).   I love my new set-up, I was able to complete this task in my kitchen with little to no mess.  Below is basic tutorial on indoor seed sowing.  I know all you regulars could do this stuff with one arm tied behind your back, but for any newbies out there searching the net for hours on end (as I was not so long ago), this is for you!

1. Gather materials.  Here I have some organic seed starting mix, a water bottle (and a cup off to the side) and my potting tray.  Today I will be using a 72 cell Pro-Tray (good for small seeded herbs & flowers, lettuce, leeks, onions, beets, endive, and kohlrabi (YUCK!)).

2.  Spray surface of soil with fine mist, or in my case continue to moisten by dumping a cup of water over moistened surface soil.  You want the mix to be moist, not real wet.  I go for a consistency that will lossely clump in my hand when squeezed.  This wetting of the mix can be done in a bucket or wash bin.

3. Scoop/pour/dump mix onto flat and brush across into cells.  Fill to the top and then compact.  If you have 2 trays of the same size use one on top to gently apply pressure into the cells below.  The seeds I was sowing today required a 1/4-1/2 inch of depth.  Below I have my Chipollini rows labeled, the seed in the dish, and the mix lightly pressed to the desired depth- ready to begin sowing!

4.  Drop desired amont of seeds into individual cells, be sure to mark the variety sown and date if you are sowing more than one variety in a flat.  The seeds can be difficult to see and remembering what just went where can be easily forgotten or confused, especially when small children are interupting the task.
Two seeds were sown per cell on the onions and kale, I did 3 for the spinach since spinach seed deteriorates quickly with age, and these are 2009 seeds.  There are many methods of getting the seeds placed where you want them....I either drop a couple in by hand or use a small dish and a plant marker to slide 'em in as I go.

5.  I used the dish pictured above to dust the top of the tray with mix after all cells were sown.  Take caution to not dislodge any seeds when smoothing out the mix over the cells.  One could also just spoon mix into each cell and avoid this risk.  Once the cells are topped off, spray with a gentle mist to moisten.  My seeds were covered with a dome to help retain moisture.  Some seeds will now require being placed on a heat mat, but the varieties I sowed prefer a cooler soil temperature (50-75 degrees) so they just went onto the heated floor in my bathroom.

6.  Keep soil most during the germination period.  As soon as you see green get the seedlings under lights.  My light et-up will be assembled this weekend, stay tuned!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ready to Sow (Well Almost)

Dang is Johnny's fast!  I just ordered this stuff 2 days ago, and it is here!  I am equipped to sow, aside from not having the Vermont Compost Fort Vee mix for the soil blocker.  I do however have organic potting mix in the basement from last year's bulk order.  (Did I mention the puppy shredded anything plastic and gardening related this Fall and Winter?  Somehow she found and destroyed all of it.  She won't be able to shred the blocker now will she.)

There was a recipe included with the blocker (Eliot Coleman's), but I went with the recommend bagged mix since I can get it at a decent price through the NOFA bulk order.  The problem is that it might not be in before I want to start those maters.  No worries though, I also purchased some Cow Pots.  Ever see the "poo-pot" episode of Dirtiest Jobs?  (Just in case you missed it back in the day and are curious: - check it out!)  I will probably transplant into the poo pots rather quickly this year, then bury the pot and all when they go into the quart size containers.  Hoping for happy roots!

As for seed flats I love the domes for germinating and keeping the delicate new seedlings moist.  I ordered a 'kit' that came with different sized cell Pro-Trays to keep the soil blocks company.  This year I will most likely be germinating my fall sowings in a flat wherever possible since my seeds/seedlings were snacks for creatures this past year.  Fall sowing was a complete bust!  And that giant green thing?  I am messy.  Very messy.  Not so cool when your baby veggies live in the bedroom.....this contraption should help keep the dirt where it belongs, not on the floor.   If only I bought an extra to keep in the kitchen.  :)

Ooh! I finally have my cherished Pistou Basil seeds in hand.   Last year I did a post on this favorite herb which can be found here after my plants arrived.  We LOVE this stuff sprinkled generously in salads all summer long.  It has a pleasant, mild flavor and there is no chopping involved.  Mmmm, I can almost taste it now.

Monday, January 18, 2010


This is quite off topic for a garden blog, but Erin had requested an update some time ago.....better late than never right?  Depending on how look you look at it today is either a very good, or a very bad day to report in on our progress.  Currently my son is in his room for the afternoon for poor listening, unwillingness to follow directions, and general stupidity overall.  Yes, I just used the "S" word.

We have been in this rut more often than not since mid-December.  Math and Reading are very difficult subjects to get through since he doesn't like them.  My 'patience account' is overdrawn.  I keep threatening to send him back to public school next year, and I might.

Homeschool in theory is the best for Shaun, but not if he pulls shenanigans all day long.  He would never even think of doing this stuff in a classroom.  Then again, he wouldn't have his Mother as a personal tudor either.  What the answer is I don't know.  There are rewards in place when he tries hard and listens, but he no longer cares.  He is not allowed any TV time until his work is completed unless he is given a "break".  Some days he gets burnt out quickly, these are the days he is actually trying and I understand he needs some down time, so I give it to him.  It is beyond frustrating to watch him screw around when I know he can do it for real if he tries.  It is the best to watch his face light up when he is accomplishing something.

I know every parent deals with these struggles, and we have added more onto our plate with all this school stuff.  The yelling and crying is not good for anyone and one way or another it will stop.  On the positive side we are continually amazed by the progress he has made!!  He was learning everyday in Kindergarten as well, but it was all the fluffy stuff.  The songs, the holidays, the calendar.  Now he is learning to add and subtract, to read, and oodles and oodles of Science.  This is huge accomplishment for a kid that still didn't know the whole alphabet when we started this gig.

Socially we have been holed up until recently.  Shaun finally decided he was ready to join in on some group activities.  Last week we did an open gym for a couple of hours, and the week before we did some volunteer work at a charitable organization for children called Gifts to Give.  I am currently trying to organize a maple sugaring tour.  Not so bad right?  (I am the one that misses the socialization of the school routine, not him.)

I think that just about covers it, I will put together a list of the major aspects of the curriculum below, overall I am very happy with it's contents.

  • Handwriting Without Tears
  • Hooked on Phonics, K
  • Sonlight K Science
  • Singapore Math (Earlybird K)
  • Crticial Thinking workbooks covering all subjects
ASL and Spanish are on the wishlist.  After the tax refund comes I will invest in some tools to learn new words and signs daily.  I picked these since I took Spanish in high school and sign language in college.  Some of it will come back to me right!?!?  (NOTE: Spanish is the only class I ever failed.)

If we continue to homeschool I will invest in a Smartboard for next year, I think it would be very stimulating and fun for Shaun and myself.  (A smartboard is a giant whiteboard that is connected to your computer via a projector and is touch sensitive, so it acts as a giant interactive computer screen.  There is lots of great curriculum out there for these things, and it is very engaging for the kids.)  There are hacked Wii remote set-ups which will be the only ones affordable to us.

Hopefully the Tension Tamer tea I have sipping while typing is kicking in, because eventually I must go get the beast and try it all again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Confessions of a Seed Horder

Ahem.  Time to come clean seeing as everyone else has been.  I really, truly think I am done now.  "Done", as in if there is some crazy end to cyberspace next year and the United States Postal Service has come to grinding halt I will still hold enough seeds to grow my own garden, as well as 6 or 7 others.  It all comes down to security, cause you know, I am a little bit nutty when it comes to this stuff.  (I actually have one of those emergency kits complete with the whistle and heat blankets, and copies of all important papers, etc. stashed away in case we need to evacuate in a hurry.   Don't tell the dogs they are screwed though since I can never seem to keep that 'extra' bag of food in rotation.  Bad doggy mama!)

SO, here is the latest list, MUCH longer than the original 11 packets of seeds I ordered not too long ago.  Wanna know the worst part? These seeds were purchased in multiple orders.  It's like I know I shouldn't be buying them so I remove half of them from my cart only to go back a few days later and buy them anyway.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

All-righty, confession done.  On to the good stuff!  :)

  1. Minnesota Midget Melon
  2. Far North Melon
  3. Gentilla Lettuce
  4. Bianca di Maggio Onion
  5. Dragon Tongue Bush Bean
  6. Tam Jalepeno
  7. Extra Dwarf Pak Choy
  8. Tim's Black Ruffle Tomato
  9. Woodle Orange Tomato
  10. Amazon Chocolate Tomato
  11. Japanese Yubari King Type Cantelope
  12. Golden Midget Watermelon
  13. Eva's Burgundy Lettuce
  14. Martin's Carrot Pepper
  15. Chervena Chushka Sweet Pepper
Look at all those heirlooms!!!!  And yes, that is why most of these seeds won't make their debut until 2011.  I have done a bit of seed trading this year and it has allowed me to see that when you save your own seeds (and they germinate), there is a whole world of 'I'll trade you this for that' out there with complete strangers.  Pretty cool huh?  Hopefully next year I will be trading saved seeds, not purchased seeds.

(Trades in the works are for  Principe Borghese, Brandywine, and German Red Strawberry Tomatoes.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Amishland Seeds

This year I have become quite brave (or is it cocky??), I have ordered more than a handful of heirloom seeds.  Since this seed ordering thing is a bit of an addiction (or in my mind 'seed money' in the bank), I ventured out of my comfort zone and visited a familiar site, Amishland Seeds.  If you have never gone through the many varieties offered here it's worth a trip over.  Now.

I have ogled this site for a year now but have not had the courage to purchase these carefully raised, often times rare seed.  What if I screw up and kill the seedling?  Or what if pest and disease pressure is so high I don't get a successful harvest?

Where do I find the room?  The answer to that question may lay in next year's garden.  Am I insane to be ordering seeds I won't even grow this year?  I think not.  I did the same last year and am glad I did as at least one of the tomato varieties I ordered is not available this year.   With the poor outcome of last year's gardening season for so many I am not taking any chances this year either.  So, the variety I am most excited about is ......................


I have read so many good things about this variety, I just hope it does as well for me as it has for others since soil, climate, yadda-yadda-yadda can all influence taste.  Mmmmmm.  Can you taste those sun warmed summer tomatoes yet?

Monday, January 11, 2010


Bumblebees are a gardener's dream.  They emerge early in the season and work from sun up to sun down.  Us Northern gardeners rely on their pollination during particularly cold Springs as they are able to generate body heat with their shivering.  Without bumbles early blooming species (think fruit trees) could go unpollinated  during cold spells.  This ability to work in the cold poses a risk to the gentle giants.  They can be "grounded" by cold weather.  If this grounding lasts an extended length of time the bees will perish as they need a constant food source.  Most of us have come across a bumble that can't fly away early in the morning or during a cold Spring day.  We can help these bees (which early in the season are often queens emerging from their nest) by providing a food source and warmth, here is how:

From, this and other great info can be found under the "Help Bees" section:

If you find a grounded bumblebee early in the year, just at the start of the first warmer days, then it is probably a queen. She may have been caught out in a sudden shower or a cold spell. If the temperature of the thorax falls below 30 oC the bumblebee cannot take off (see temperature regulation). The best thing you can do it pick her up using a piece of paper or card, put her somewhere warmer, and feed her. When she has warmed and fed she will most likely fly off. You can feed her using a 30/70 mixture of honey and water in a pipette or eye dropper, or just a drop of this on a suitable surface within her reach, but be careful not to wet her hair or get her sticky. By saving a queen you may have saved an entire nest. If the weather is really unsuitable for letting her go, or if it is getting dark, you can keep her for a day or so if you are willing to feed her.
A grounded bee found at the height or end of summer is another matter. Look at the wings. If they are ragged round the edges (see the photographs of wings) then you have either an old queen or an old worker. There is little you can do as really it is their time to die, however you could take them in and feed them if you wish, but let them go if they start to fly. If the wings are fairly intact then you have probably got a male that is either cold or has been so busy patrolling that he forgot to drink. As above you can take him somewhere warm and feed him, then let him go.

Bumbles in general are attracted to yellow, purple, and blue flowers, especially those with tubular flowers. "Double" varieties of most flowers will not contain pollen so are of no use to bees.  Foxglove and Heather are used as shelter when rain arrives suddenly.  The following flowers are great bumble attractors:

  • Blueberry Bush bells
  • Blooms of the Nightshade Family
  • Columbine
  • Delphinium
  • Snapdragon
  • Bergamot
  • Larkspur
  • Honeysuckle
  • Lavender
  • Salvia
  • Clover (yup, that white clover in your lawn)  :)

*Many flowers are great multi-species bee attractors in general, such as those found in 'cottage gardens', natives, berry and fruit blooms, high pollen sunflowers, and herbs.*

A food source is not the only requisite for hosting bumbles, they also require a good spot to nest.  Bees tunnel into bare dirt to lay eggs and hibernate, so mulch of any sort makes a landscape unsuitable (this is more problematic in urban settings).  The base of stones and hedges are frequent nesting sites so be careful not to disturb these areas whenever possible.  Curious about how to sex a bee to see if it can sting?  Check out an older post on the subject of bee bits here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Food for Thought

With all this debate over Global Warming, and the recent airing of the global warming scientist's dirty laundry it makes one stop and think.  The weather patterns are changing, I don't think anyone would argue about that.  But why?

Are carbon emission standards just another way for the rich to get richer?  (I happen to think YES!)  Just look into which companies will hold the most credits, and who owns the companies that will profit from the trading of these credits.  One of them is  the man who supposedly once claimed to have invented the internet.  Enough said.  Ethanol?  It should be illegal with all the water used to make it  (4 gallons of H2O for 1 gallon  of Ethanol according to Mother Earth News)...seriously, we Americans waste all the water already.  Biofuel?  Horrible emissions.  I wish everyone would concentrate on reducing the chemicals and pollutants we pump into our air and water just because we should, not because it's trendy to "go green".  That would do a lot of immediate good for all creatures on this Earth.

Some scientists say we are  experiencing the next global extinction.  Our climate is changing, food will become short (shorter) if this continues, and water is already a serious problem in many parts of the world.  Disease will take hold like never before.   2012 is a very famous year.  The earth has gone through many historic changes since it's existence, what makes us think it would 'put it all on hold' for us?  Just some food for thought.

(P.S.- for anyone that was lacking pollinators (honey bees) in their gardens last year, go for the bumbles! They are attracted to certain flowers and are great pollinators as well.  I will try and dig up some specifics on varieties and post them.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Biodynamics, Nutrient Density, Soil Building, and Medicinal Herbs

I had the pleasure of being introduced to the subject of Biodynamic Gardening by a local farmer.  When I heard it is a way of making the food we grow as nutrient dense as possible my ears really perked up.  I am one of those in the camp of 'today's food sucks', meaning our fruits and veggies are not as nutritious as they once were.  Many believe organic produce to be higher in vitamins and minerals than their conventional counterparts, but studies have both proven and disproven this general theory.  Bottom line?   It all comes down to the soil.  Healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy people.  Hopefully the selectively applied amendments  and compost will create a micro-organism dense garden soil over the years that will allow my plants to take up as many nutrients as possible, and therefor be pest and disease resistant as well as nutritionally denss.  (Humates, Greensand, Kelp Meal, Organic Compost, and Gypsum will all be added to raised beds come Spring.)

Measuring Brix is way to take a stab at how your produce is fairing nutritionally.  Juice is taken from the specimen and looked at through a refractometer in order to read the sugar content.  The idea is that if the sugar content is high, other content should be as well.  Most of us don't whip out the refractometer when we harvest a pepper or tomato but I plan to this summer.  I just happen to have one in my kitchen cabinet since I keep saltwater fish and use it to measure salinity.  The only thing I have ever taken a Brix reading on is a carrot, it was showing 65% which would mean the carrot has 65 grams of sugar per 100 grams of solution.  I know very little about this whole Brix business aside from the higher the reading the better, and that many variables can alter the reading.

Still with me?  Hope so...  :)  Does anyone else out there have an interest in medicinal herbs, particularly those with anti-biotic and anti-viral properties?  Many of these herbs require 3 or 4 years growth before their roots can be harvested and used.  I hope to order one or two of these so they will be on hand if we ever need them.  The anti-biotic resistance in this world in my opinion is one of the scariest things my generation, and my children's generation will face.  (Malaria and TB are spreading faster than ever across the globe and some of these strains are resistant to the list of drugs we use to fight them.  TB hospitals were the thing of the past here in the United States, that is unfortunately slowly changing.  E. Coli has grown drug resistant thanks to cows having guts full of antibiotics.)  Sorry, it really just scares the &*%# out of me.   So I am interested in being a bit self-sufficient on this end as well, but many of these herbs are traditionally grown in China or India thus may not be a good candidate for my Massachusetts garden.


Lastly, I plan on trying to follow a lunar planting calendar as much as possible this gardening season.  Dates best for sowing, weeding, pest management, etc. are given.  I am very curious to see if germination rates are in fact increased, or if the pest population is more susceptible on certain days.  Lets hope I actually stick with this and keep good records, I really am intrigued by the moon and it's powers.  Thank you for staying with me while I let my inner hippy come out and do a blog post, it's not very often I let her speak.  :)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

When Gardening Pays Off

The thing that is great about life is sometimes something really cool happens unexpectedly.  The e-mail inquiring about a photograph on my blog was one of those things, it made my day!  The 2010 catalog arrived along with my check for the Cipollini photograph from White Flower Farm a week or so ago.  The check will greatly offset this year's gardening costs, I am just so thrilled to have a photograph published AND be paid for it!  (I did however have to hold back while thumbing through those pages or it all could have gone right back in their pockets.)  Well anyways, here it is....the first time my garden has actually paid off.  Thanks White Flower Farm!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mmm, Mmm, Good.

When the weather outside looks like this:

Run to the freezer to find a little bit of
summer harvested sunshine.
Last week my taste of the sun came via Farm Fresh Pesto and my own oven dried tomatoes packed in oil.   Mmmm, I had to really dig to find those tomatoes,
but they were well worth it!

What have you been enjoying from your summer stash?

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Winter Work

Well, the seeds have been organized and ordered.  More fruit plants have been ordered (Reliance Grape, 5 Blackberries, 4 low bush blueberries, a white currant, a mandarin orange tree, and rhubarb), the new garden expansion plans are in place and my NOFA bulk order just needs to be mailed out.  Whew, my mind has been 'garden-garden-garden-' for days on I need to sit back and relax until seed germination begins.  Oh, and did I mention I have over 1,000 pea seeds?  YIKES!  I should have paid more attention, Johnny's shelling pea packets have a minimum of 375 seeds.  I ordered three varieties.

We are continuing to enjoy the fruits from the freezer and the canned goods from the pantry shelf.  I am eating some blueberry pancakes right now as a matter of fact!  Freezing all those berries and pie filling was a good move.  Speaking of berries, this year's purchases are once again breaking the bank so I have decided not to do the CSA this year.  Fingers crossed I will have access to a beef order another way at the end of the year, I would just rather invest the money in my own garden.

It has been a challenge to streamline my plantings into something more functional and less fun for the 2010 season.  Sadly there are many seeds in my stash that will not be sown this year, last year I seemed to have too many or not enough of many things......too many tomatoes for fresh eating, but not enough to process; too few green beans for a side dish or salad; too many cukes for fresh eating, not enough to pickle etc..  Because my space is limited I am considering doing an every other year type planting schedule for pickling cukes and tomatoes.  If I grow both I am limiting my abilities to can, especially on the tomatoes.  If I alternate years I can do sauce/salsa one year, and pickles the next.  I am out of my mind to even consider this??? (I would still grow a few tomatoes for fresh eating.)

Lastly, anyone have a favorite salsa tomato?  Can you use any type?  (Last year I was going to make lots of fresh salsa and it didn't happen once.)