These twelve postcards are from the Garden Patch Series, illustrated by E. Curtis in 1907. They were typically used as Valentine's Day greetings. The novelty illustrations feature an exaggerated-size vegetable or fruit as the head of a boy or girl with a related pun displaying around the image. The postcards were published by Raphael Tuck & Sons, a London-based publishing business that was one of the most well-known during the 'postcard boom' of the late 1800s and early 1990s. The company headquarters, Raphael House, was destroyed during The Blitz of the Second World War.
When I started landrace gardening, I had to relearn how to name the plants in my garden. I was used to keeping varieties separate, and to taking great pains to insure that they remained pure. I was pretty much of the mindset that a variety has one name that it carries with it forever. As a landrace gardener, names have become more fleeting. These days, in my garden, plants are more likely to be called something like “Dry Beans”, or “That Dry Bean With The Pretty Purple Flowers."
Mega-farms which grow seed for the mass-market use a naming strategy in which each cultivar is distinct and separate from every other cultivar. The seed is highly inbred, and measures are taken to keep in that way. Fixed names and unchanging genetics are important when growing commercial seed to be sold in a national or international market. Farmers should be able to trust that the “Bodacious Sweet Corn” that they purchased last year is the same as what they are purchasing this year.
The naming strategy used by landrace gardeners is more flexible. Landrace gardeners tend to lump seeds together into groups of similar type, and then name only the family groups. To people that are saving their own seeds, and localizing them to their own gardens, the history and specific genetics of a variety don’t matter much. What matters more is that the current population has been localized to grow well in each particular garden.
As an example, with moschata squash, I separate the patch into early fruiting, which I save for seed, and later fruiting which I send to the farmer's market. Earliness is an important trait to me because I can't harvest a fruit that fails to mature. The first year of my moschata squash trials about 75 percent of the varieties grown did not produce fruits. The moschata landrace contains butternuts, and necked squash, and pumpkins. I lump the seed together and call them by their species name. The distinguishing trait is that they are squash. They look like squash. They grow like squash. They taste like squash.
In some cases it makes sense to separate the seeds a bit more, mostly for practical considerations. For example, with butternut squash, people frequently asked me for smaller fruits, so I divided the landrace into a small/medium fruited landrace, and into an extra-large fruited landrace. I grow them in separate fields so that they don’t cross.
In the early years of a landrace development project I like to plant seeds fruit-to-row. By that, I mean that the seeds from one fruit are planted together in a row by themselves. The row might only be 3 feet long, or I might plant a hill of melons all from the same mother. This allows me to see how the offspring of a particular mother compare to the offspring of other mothers. I might not know anything about the pollen donor, but I can learn a lot about the mother by watching how a sibling group grows. Because earliness to harvest is of great importance to me in melons, I typically name fruits based on the day that they were harvested, followed by a letter to distinguish the different fruits that were harvested on the same day. For example, this photo shows how I label cantaloupes as they are coming out of the garden. On these melons I also added a designation of which field they came from. I planted different populations in different fields, so that also tells me something about the family history of the fruit.
I add other details to the fermentation vat and final seed packet such as “yellow flesh”, or “tastes great”, or “10 percent sugar." Then before planting I can use those notes to decide what to plant. Offspring tend to resemble their mother.
When I am harvesting popcorn, I label the baskets with the date harvested. I pop each cob separately. I label great cobs with the date harvested, expansion ratio, number of old-maids, and unique traits, such as easy shelling or great taste. Then before planting time, I sort the seed packets to decide what traits I’d like to carry through to next year. I only keep plants separate that have some trait that I'd like to emphasize. Average cobs with average traits are saved and planted in bulk.
I do not typically label plants when they are planted. I am most interested in how the plants grow. I am not much interested in their history. Even if I could keep perfect records, there is unavoidable chaos when saving seeds. For example, one day my brother threw kitchen scraps into the fermentation bucket for my tomato landrace! So my tomato seed included seeds from tomatillos, peppers, and unselected tomatoes. The tomatillo that my brother helped me save was very nice.
I take copious photos or videos while planting, and during growth and harvest. If something interesting shows up I might be able to learn more about it from the images.
I often put a ribbon of surveyor's tape around a plant that has desirable traits, and write a note on the tape. Then the note is carried along with the vegetable at harvest, and becomes part of the name/description of the plant.
Once I get to a well developed landrace, I use names that describe the phenotype of the crop, along with a description of the location to which it is well adapted: So I grow “Joseph’s Best Cantaloupe landrace." It is the best growing cantaloupe in Joseph’s garden. I grow “Paradise Sugary Enhanced Landrace Sweet Corn." Paradise is the name of the village where the corn was developed. “Sugary Enhanced Sweet Corn" describes what the corn is used for, and “Landrace” implies that it is genetically diverse and has been localized to my garden by passing the survival of the fittest test.
Next week I will write about how landrace gardening promotes hybrid vigor and avoids inbreeding depression by encouraging promiscuous pollination.
Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.
Nestled deep in the sticks of Schoharie County in upstate New York, lays Raven Crest Botanicals, a 250-acre sanctuary of an organic farm. Over 80 herbs are grown at Raven Crest for a variety of teas, tinctures, elixirs and skin care products. Susanna Raeven, owner of Raven Crest Botanicals, strives to bring “non-toxic, safe and effective, hand-made herbal products, made in small batches with love and intent” to her clients to “help them find balance in their lives with the generous support of the plant kingdom.”
Raven Crest teas, elixirs and tinctures are derived from Mother Earth without harming her, made well for Susanna’s supporters to be well. Ms.Raeven uses a variety of permaculture methods to ensure that each and every one of her products is natural, organic, and pesticide and fertilizer free.
Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer, the “Father of Permaculture,” describes the farming method as an environment where all elements within a system interact with each other; plants and animals working together in harmony. Holzer outlined major themes of permaculture:
• Multi-functionality: every element fulfills multiple functions and every function is performed by multiple elements
• Use energy practically and efficiently, work with renewables
• Use natural resources
• Intensive systems in a small area
• Utilize and shape natural processes and cycles
• Support and use edge effects (creating highly productive small-scale structures)
• Diversity instead of monoculture
Keeping the themes of Sepp Holzer in mind, below are five permaculture tips for a more sustainable farm, as used by Susanna Raeven at Raven Crest Botanicals:
1. Try Sheet Mulching
“If you don’t have good soil, you got nothing,” Susanna Raeven said. Sheet mulching establishes a great foundation for planting by using different layers of inorganic and organic materials to help the soil build itself. Start with slashed vegetation, and then add a layer of cardboard, a thin layer of manure, a foot of straw, compost, and end with mulch. Organic fertilizer can be added too.
At Raven Crest Botanicals, Ms.Raeven uses Espoma plant-tone, blood meal/dried blood, bone meal, azomite, rock phosphate, and lime for soil amendments. For added trace minerals, kelp or seaweed works well too.
The inorganic cardboard brings the carbon and the manure brings the nitrogen into the system, which are both needed for high quality soil. The key to excellent soil is a healthy ecosystem of microorganisms working the land, and sheet mulching is a way to provide good habitat for them.
2. Build Permaculture Guilds
Permaculture is based on utilizing and shaping natural processes, like those seen in forests. One way to mimic nature is to build a “food forest.” Similar to a natural forest system, food crops and other plants that provide for human needs can be planted together to create multiple layers of vegetation and a diverse environment.
A good start for a long-term food forest is a permaculture guild. A guild is a grouping of plants, animals, insects and other natural elements that work together to survive, grow symbiotically and help one another reach their fullest potential.
At Raven Crest Botanicals, sheet mulching was laid around fruit trees to provide the ground work for other herbs and flowers to be grouped together around the tree, and eventually establish a permaculture guild, when the soil is ready to be planted in.
Typically, monoculture grass and fruit tree root structures lie at a similar depth in the soil, thus creating competition for resources like nutrients and water. By planting herbs and flowers in a guild instead of planting grass, the competition for resources is eliminated and the plants can grow together symbiotically.
To build a strong permaculture guild, companion planting can be used to facilitate the smaller symbiotic relationships that contribute to the functionality of the system as a whole community. Planting different crops that compliment each other can also help with pest control, pollination and increase productivity. Tarragon and eggplant can be planted as companions. A common example of companion planting is the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. The stalk from the corn serves as a trellis for the beans to climb, as the beans fix nitrogen to benefit the corn. Squash vines act as “living mulch,” shading emerging weeds and preventing moisture in the soil from evaporating.
View the companion planting guide put together by MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.
3. Rethink Your Gardening Space
To save money on soil and to reduce water use, consider building a Hugelkultur raised garden bed. A permaculture concept, a Hugelkultur is simply a raised garden bed filled with wood. At Raven Crest Botanicals, trees, branches and stumps were used to build a raised bed. Then, perennial herbs were planted to keep the soil in place. (See lead photo)
The rotting wood contains high levels of organic material, nutrients and air pockets for the roots of the plants in the bed. With time, the soil becomes rich and loaded with helpful microorganisms. As the wood shrinks, it makes more air pockets; allowing for a little bit of self tilling. The wood also helps keep excess nutrients in the soil, not leak into the groundwater, acting as a self-fertilizer. The water held in the tree stumps and branches allows for very little irrigation. Only a foot or so of soil is needed on top of the rotting wood, so Hugelkultur cuts down on soil costs too.
Another interesting way to completely eliminate soil expenses is to try straw bale gardening. No need for a big plot of land or soil, straw bales allow for gardening on roof tops, in parking lots, and high density urban areas. The bales are moveable too! To start planting in straw bales, simply add a lot of heavy nitrogen and organic fertilizer for one week, to help aid the decomposition process. Then, spend another week watering the bale. The straw bale will get very hot inside, but once the temperature comes down to 100 degrees, it is time to start planting seedlings. Straw bale gardening makes for an easier harvest too, since roots don’t have to be dug out.
For more information about straw bale gardening, read this article in the New York Times.
4. Go Solar!
Part of the vision of permaculture is to use energy efficiently and work with renewables. At Raven Crest Botanicals, a solar powered irrigation system waters the herbs and flowers with the water from the pond on the farm. Also at Raven Crest is a passive solar, earth-sheltered greenhouse. The greenhouse was built using the plans from The Earth-Sheltered Greenhouse by Mike Oehler, a book featured on Mother Earth News.
The Raven Crest greenhouse is insulated by the Earth and has a cold sink to give cold air a space to settle away from the tender seedlings. The oil-filled pistons of the temperature-sensitive automatic vents allow the greenhouse to regulate its own temperature. The oil in the pistons contracts in the cold (closing the vents) and expands in the heat (opening the vents). There are also ten 55 gallon water drums to help regulate the temperature in the greenhouse.
The hanging beds naturally keep mice away and serve as drying shelves when all of the herbs and flowers have been moved out of the greenhouse, hardened and planted. Although Ms.Raeven has a solar drier to dry her herbs for teas, elixirs and tinctures, the added space from her greenhouse gives her a better chance to dry all her herbs at their peak when they are the most medicinal.
5. Grow the Organic Farming Community – Host a WWOOFer
Susanna Raeven describes her farm as a “single woman operation.” In order to grow her small business and reach more clients, she needs help planting and harvesting her herbs and tending her farm. Because of this, Susanna has become a part of the WWOOF program as a “host farm.”
Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF) is an “effort to link visitors with organic farmers, promote an educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming practices.” The program connects people who would like to learn more about the organic movement, permaculture and sustainable agriculture, with farmers who want to share their knowledge. No money is exchanged between host farms and “WWOOFers,” just room and board for the volunteers (and amazing food if you are lucky!).
WWOOF is a great way to cultivate the movement for organic, healthy foods and to engage the younger generation in permaculture, farming and the environment. WWOOF creates an atmosphere of trust and respect, with emphasis placed on the value of hard work and integrity. The program shows that living off the land is a way to eat well, be well and wash your spirit clean.
Top photo - Hugelkultur raised garden bed.
Middle photo - Sheet mulching in progress on Raven Crest farm.
Bottom photo - Hanging beds inside the greenhouse.
For more information Raven Crest Botanicals, visit www.RavenCrestBotanicals.com. Susanna also offers flexible CSA packages at an affordable price that can be shipped throughout the United States.
Landrace gardening is a traditional method of growing food in which the seeds to be planted next year result from the survival of the fittest in a particular garden in previous years. Landrace varieties become attached to a region, and thrive in that region. Landrace varieties are genetically variable so that as conditions change from year to year the population can adapt to the changes.
The first landrace crop that I grew was Astronomy Domine sweet corn. It was the product of a breeding project by Alan Bishop of Bishop’s Homegrown in Pekin, Indiana. The essence of the project was to throw as many cultivars of sweet corn as possible into a field, let them cross pollinate, and see what survived and how the descendants fared. Around 200 cultivars contributed their diversity to the gene pool. Some plants grew vigorously, many grew decent, and some struggled to survive. I saved seed from the parents that thrived and that did okay, and replanted the next year. The results were fantastic! I was hooked on growing genetically diverse crops and saving seeds from them.
My version of Astronomy Domine had diverged from the original version. My population is about ten days shorter season than the original. That is to be expected because in my cold mountain valley a crop has to produce quickly and thrive in cool nights if I am to get a harvest.
After the stunning success of the sweet corn project, I determined that I wanted to explore growing other varieties of localized landrace crops. Melons seemed like a good test project, because they have traditionally done poorly in my valley, and because they are highly popular. Melons are an out-breeding crop, so they cross-pollinate readily, and can produce huge numbers of genetically unique individuals. Generating lots of variety is one of the key principals of landrace gardening. More diversity provides more opportunities to find family groups that thrive in any particular garden.
To start the cantaloupe project, I gathered together the seeds from the few melons that had produced a fruit the previous year, and I added to them as many varieties as I could obtain: from local farm stands, from the Internet, from seed catalogs, from the grocery store. I planted a packet of seeds per row until I had planted a large patch of melons. Then I sat back and watched one melon disaster after another. Some varieties didn’t germinate. Some varieties were eaten by bugs within days of emerging. Others just sat there and shivered in the cold. Some individuals shrugged off the adverse growing conditions and grew robustly. The two best growing plants produced more fruit than the rest of the patch combined.
Here are photos that demonstrate the differences. Each seed was planted on the same day, a few feet from each other in the garden. The photos were taken a few minutes apart. The first photo shows what an average cantaloupe from a seed packet grows like in my garden. The second photo shows what a well adapted cantaloupe grows like in my garden (after only one year of selection).
I collected the seed from the best growing melons and replanted it. Oh my heck!!! I was used to trying to grow maladapted cantaloupes. I never imagined that cantaloupes might actually produce an abundant harvest for me: I was harvesting a hundred pounds of fruit at a time!
Early in the process of developing a locally adapted cantaloupe population, I was contacted by a grower who grows in the same mountain valley as my farm. Since that time, we have shared seeds liberally with each other. I trust her seeds implicitly, because we share the same climate, the same soil, the same altitude, the same bugs, and the same philosophy towards diversity. Her seeds thrive in my garden because our gardens are so similar. I love our collaboration. It is nice to see the grandchildren of my seeds coming back home to grow among their cousins. Half of the watermelon and cantaloupe seeds that I planted this spring were grown by her. She provided most of my sweet pepper seed. I am coming to favor the yellow watermelons that are emerging from the collaboration. They taste excellent and grow well in our valley. When did anyone ever say that before about watermelons in our valley?
The watermelon project included collaborators from around the world. We have shared seeds liberally among all participants. The most reliable imports into my garden have consistently came from the collaborator in my valley. To start the watermelon project, I planted around 700 seeds: A few seeds each from as many varieties as we could get our hands on. The first planting included the promiscuously pollinated hybrid offspring of hundreds of varieties. I harvested about 5 fruits the first year. That is great odds for a survival of the fittest plant breeding program. One of those fruits was from the variety of watermelon that my daddy has preserved for decades in our valley.
Because of my success with cantaloupes, I decided to convert all of my crops to locally-adapted survival-of-the-fittest landraces. Spinach was among the first crops that I converted. It was the simplest for me. I planted a number of varieties of spinach next to each other and weeded out the plants that were slow growing, or quick to bolt. About 4 of the 12 varieties were suitable for my garden. I allowed them to cross pollinate and set seed. This spring someone gave me a packet of spinach seeds so I thought I’d plant it next to my locally-adapted landrace to compare them. See that little speck of green that I marked with a red dot? That is the imported spinach: Already gone to seed. I pulled it and laid it next to my landrace spinach to demonstrate the huge difference in growth. They were planted on the same day a few feet from each other.
Sometimes when I start adapting a new crop to my garden, I import hundreds of varieties to trial. Other times I take a slow and steady approach, by growing one new cultivar in the row next to my crop. If the new variety does well then I save seeds from it and add them to the landrace. If the new variety does poorly, then it might contribute some pollen. I do not try to keep varieties pure, other than basic things like keeping hot peppers separate from sweet peppers, and sweet corn separate from popcorn. Turnips are a crop that I approached by the slow and steady method. They already grew well for me, so there wasn’t any reason to search far and wide for something that would do better. I plant another packet of seed every few years, and may include a couple of roots from the new strain among the seed-parents the following year.
The dry bean landrace has been fun for me because it is tremendously colorful. It draws lots of attention at the farmer’s market. I started it by planting beans, all jumbled up together from as many species and cultivars as I could acquire. I think that there were around 12 species, many of which I had never grown before. I planted them in hot weather, not knowing that some of them are cool-weather species. I didn’t know if they were bush beans or pole beans. Nevertheless, some of them grew very well and produced a harvest in my short growing season. I collected the seeds of the survivors and planted them a couple weeks ago. This year I am expecting them to do great, because I selected (mostly) for bush types whose parents thrived in my garden. I tend to give my crops names that describe the plant or its use, such as “dry bush bean landrace”. “Dry bean” describes what the crop is used for, “bush” describes how it grows, and “landrace” implies that it is genetically diverse and has been localized to my garden by passing the survival of the fittest test. Some crops can achieve the landrace label in my garden in one growing season, other crops may take many years before I could say that they are thriving in my garden.
I could write and write about how successful landrace gardening has been for me, but it would just be more of the same: The locally adapted plants thriving, and the imports from far away struggling to survive. I hope that this post has helped show in photos why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.
Next time I’ll write more about naming all the new plants that arise in a landrace garden.
Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.
This is probably going to make a lot of people mad, but I have a confession: I think many non-native invasive plants are fantastic.
Before you stone me – let me explain.
The entire planet is in a state of constant flux. Cycles of warming, cooling, extinction, floods, earthquakes, glaciers, volcanoes and sea level changes are part of the system. And inside that complex system, there are constant battles between different species. When we get involved, things are sometimes preserved … and sometimes destroyed. Boats, planes, cars and even footsteps have carried plants, animals and insects into places where they’ve never gone before. Government programs have led to land mismanagement that changes the balance of nature while encouraging the planting of terrible mistakes like kudzu, not to mention the eradication of “pest” species that later turned out to be important to maintaining a healthy ecological balance (remember the Yellowstone wolf eradication program?). Over time, termites have arrived in wooden crates … mosquito larvae traveled in water-filled tires … pretty plants like air potatoes have been spread by unsuspecting little old ladies … weed seeds have traveled in sod… the list goes on and on and on.
It’s enough to give any USDA inspector a major headache. No one wants to see chestnuts fall by the millions to an introduced blight … or watch entire forests be devoured by vines … or worry if a newly arrived beetle is going to spread a killer fungus into their prized avocado tree.
But at the same time – sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Did you know that Monsanto funds native plant initiatives? It seems that for every “pest” plant that shows up, there’s the same answer: RoundUp! Is killing all these invasive plants the right thing to do?
Perhaps in the case of some of them, we should just let nature find its own path? Even better, what if we put some of the invasives to work for us?
Here’s an example of a useful invasive: the winged yam, also known as Dioscorea alata. Though it’s shown up here and there across the southern states, it’s not a madly prolific invader like its cousin the air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera). It’s also a really good edible, making delicious roots that can become quite large over successive seasons. Last fall I found a vine in the wild, dug it up, and got a succulent 8lb tuber (which was subsequently turned into some of the best home fries we’ve ever had.) At some point, the winged yam was brought here as an edible. And, being a good tough plant, it escaped… and now there’s free food where there didn’t used to be. Yams beat the heck out of acorns, which would probably be the next best source of calories around here.
Yet – when winged yams are found in a park, what happens? Do they get eaten? No – they get sprayed with herbicides. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach people how delicious they are? Sure, if anyone knew how many delicious calories you could grow with little work, they might start planting the yams and spreading them further… but I’m not at all convinced that’s a bad thing. Of course, it’s not like I’m going around telling everyone how great these things are. Oh … wait …
Now let’s take a look at another invasive plant: the mimosa tree, also known as Albizia julibrissin. In 1745 it was introduced to the US from China and has spread here and there throughout a lot of the woods on the southeast half of the nation. It’s a pretty tree and has been planted extensively as an ornamental. Being a member of the bean and pea family, it also has the gift of fixing nitrogen. Remember how George Washington Carver planted peanuts between crops of cotton to put nitrogen back in the soil? That’s what these guys do – and that’s why you’ll often see mimosa trees by the side of highways. Where the ground has been broken, abused and torn to pieces, these hardy pioneers step in and fix things. They’re a soft-wooded species that’s also a fast-growing source of biomass. If I had a wrecked piece of farmland that had been stripped bare, I’d think about interplanting these suckers with fruit trees. Then I’d chop back the mimosas any time things got too shady. This way, they’d be feeding the ground from beneath thanks to their nitrogen-fixing powers… and they’d be feeding the ground from above thanks to the rough chop-n-drop mulch I’d be making. Having them in the system would contribute greatly to the success of my cultivated fruit trees. Just because they’re “invasive,” it doesn’t mean they’re worthless.
Finally – let’s wrap up with an incredibly obnoxious plant that’s been classified as “invasive,” since it most definitely is: the water hyacinth.
Just say “water hyacinth” and many people cringe. These things can double their population every two weeks, choking out rivers, ponds and waterways, causing terrible amounts of trouble for the tourist industry, shipping and anyone who enjoys boating. They’re not supposed to be in the US – but they’re here now, so we’re stuck. Currently, the plants are being sprayed with herbicides, shredded by special dredgers and completely… wasted.
Wasted? Yeah. The very thing that makes the water hyacinth a terrible weed… its ability to grow at astonishing speeds… is also an incredible asset. How so?
Have you ever fought and fought to make enough compost? Doesn’t it seem like you can never get enough greens and browns together to feed all the plants you want to feed, so you’re stuck doling out compost like a miser? What if – instead of simply poisoning all these water hyacinth plants – they were composted?
Here’s how a friend of a friend does it: There’s a foreclosure home with an abandoned pool. That pool is now home to a mess of water hyacinths. Every week or two, this fellow fills a few 55-gallon drums full of water hyacinth plants, then dumps them in a pile to rot. Once out of the water, the plants begin composting rapidly… and the resulting black gold is used to feed his gardens. How’s that for American ingenuity?
High in protein, water hyacinth can also be used as animal feed – or even human feed. It could also be an amazing source of biofuel, if we re-thought things a bit and quit simply killing it.
Unfortunately, you’re really not allowed to experiment with this at your own place. If I decided to grow water hyacinths, I’d probably be in violation of a half-dozen laws. And not only that – you’re not even allowed to scrape up a bunch from the local river and compost them. Nope – that’s illegally transporting a Terrible Evil Invasive. Instead, we have to pay some poor guy to blast herbicides over the river all day.
Because dealing with invasive plants has become a place for laws, laws, laws, laws, laws and weed killer… it’s sometimes hard for environmentally minded folks with good ideas to re-purpose these plants so they become assets.
Many of the problems with invasive species are our own fault. And now it’s up to us to take these species and use them in the best manner possible while still preserving native plants to the best of our ability. There may be times we need to go full-on scorched earth with non-native invasives … but I’ll bet it’s a lot less often than we do now.
Perhaps rather than reaching for the backpack sprayer, we should start searching for new uses (and recipes) for troublesome species?
Yam hashbrowns, anyone?
For survival plant profiles, ideas on growing tons of food, and madcap gardening inspiration, visit David’s daily blog at www.floridasurvivalgardening.com.
Gardening amateurs and experts alike have an opportunity to share seed-saving knowledge and participate in related activities at the 33rd Annual Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout, July 19 to 21, at Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa.
Internationally celebrated ethnobotanist, author, and activist Gary Paul Nabhan will keynote, speaking about the threat climate change poses to food production. This year’s conference also includes four additional leaders in the seed saving and heirloom gardening world, with topics ranging from patent protection to growing edible gardens.
Not only can attendees listen to an array of informative speeches, but they can also choose from more than a dozen workshops that are beneficial for both the beginning and experienced gardener. Workshop topics include seed saving, information on Seed Savers Exchange, community seed projects, and general gardening.
Also planned for the weekend are numerous activities, including a seed swap, nature walks, garden, facilities and historic orchard tours, a barn dance, cooking beans in a traditional New England Bean Hole, trout fishing, camping, delicious local food, an outdoor movie, and “Dig and Discover” youth activities. For the first time at the annual conference, Seed Savers Exchange is inviting SSE members to arrive early on July 19 for a members-only Field Day, consisting of behind-the-scenes tours of Heritage Farm as well as membership discussions with SSE staff and board members.
The conference is open to the general public, with registration fees starting at $75 for Seed Savers Exchange members and $100 for non-members. Single-day registration is also available. Space is limited and fees increase July 1, so register now if interested. For more information, including a schedule and to register, click here.
Gardeners seeking miraculous growth from their plants, especially from potted plants whose root can’t forage a far as plants in the ground, often turn to 'Miracle-Gro'. In fact, gardeners often turn to 'Miracle-Gro' as elixir for any plant that might need some more oomph. 'Miracle-Gro', in case you are unfamiliar with manufactured miracles, is a plant food. Not just any old plant food, though, but a plant food by which legions of gardeners -- and such notables as actors and athletes, in magazine ads -- swear.
To discover what magic tonic might lie within that unassuming cardboard box, I delved deeper than the plant label. There, the active ingredients are explicitly spelled out, as they must be, by law. 'Miracle-Gro' is a 15-30-15 fertilizer, meaning that that the powder within contains 15 percent nitrogen, 30 percent phosphorous, and 15 percent potassium. Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are the three main nutrients needed by plants, the ones plants gobble up in greatest quantity.
Now take a look at the label of some other plant food: ‘Schultz Instant’, for example. ‘Schultz Instant’ is 20-30-20, another concentrate of the three most-needed nutrients. Although a bit richer than 'Miracle-Gro', ‘Schultz Instant’ won’t make plants grow any faster than 'Miracle-Gro', because you are supposed to use less of it. (Too rich a diet is as harmful to plants as it is to humans.) There’s no magic in that 1:2:1 ratio of nitrogen to phosphorous to potassium in ‘Miracle-Gro’ and ‘Schultz Instant’, and other fertilizers that might have other ratios. The Miracle-Gro company, in fact, makes ‘Miracle-Gro for Roses’, containing 18-24-16, as well as one for tomato, having a ratio of 18-18-21.
But plants are not really all that finicky, within reason, about how they are fed. A good share -- even all -- of their nourishment should from the soil itself, rather than from a liquid concentrate. And the difference between a plant “eating” ‘Miracle-Gro’ or ‘Schultz Instant’ or some other plant food is about as great as the difference between you or me eating green beans or lima beans or or peas. ‘Miracle-Gro’ and many other plant foods are chemical fertilizers. I prefer organic fertilizers. They offer a spectrum of nutrients, including micronutrients, not just the “big three.” Nutrients in organic fertilizers are made available to plants through microbial decomposition. And the same heat and moisture that spurs microbial growth also spurs plant growth so that nutrients are made available in synch with plant growth.
When possible, I feed my plants - or, rather, the soil - the Cadillac of plant foods, which is compost. Besides offering a broad spectrum of nutrients, compost adds organic bulk to the soil, helping it retain water and air, necessitating less exactitude in acidity, and rendering nutrients already in the soil more available to plants. Every autumn, I swathe my vegetable beds with an inch depth of compost, which supplies everything the plants need for the year. Other parts of my farmden might get blanketed with wood chips or hay. Though less rich in nutrients than compost, wood chips and hay do feed my plants as they decompose.
Sometimes more concentrated fertilizers are needed. In that case, I scoop out my universal pabulum, soybean meal. It supplies mostly nitrogen, but that’s all that’s needed when bulky organic materials have been used. Just a sprinkling, one to two pounds per hundred square feet, is all that’s needed. In spite of its mundane composition, ‘Miracle-Gro’ does often produce miraculous results, for a couple of reasons. One reason is because the stuff is so convenient to use. The powder is soluble, so you can just dissolve it in water in your watering can, and the directions are explicit and easy to follow.
Many other fertilizers are also convenient and easy to use, so perhaps the greatest miracle of ‘Miracle-Gro’ is the miraculous effectiveness of the company’s advertising. Partly, it’s the name; humans, after all, have for millennia been seeking miracles. Throughout the country, the words 'Miracle-Gro' come into many gardeners’ minds whenever they think of feeding their plants; for many, 'Miracle-Gro' is synonymous with fertilizer. I’ve even used it on rare occasions. Some potted plants needed some quick oomph. Compost was out of the question because there was no additional room in the pot for compost (besides what was in my potting mix). Soybean meal takes a few weeks before nutrient begin to be released. But why ‘Miracl-Gro’ and not some other such fertilizer? Because ‘Miracl-Gro’ was on sale at the time, offering the best price per amount of nitrogen.
Lee Reich describes the weekly goings-on at his farmden (more than a garden, less than a farm) at www.leereich.blogspot.com.