Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How do you store your seeds?

How you save your seeds is supposed to be tremendously important - temperature, humidity, and light all affect whether seeds sprout, die, or stay safely dormant. People have schemes of varying elaborateness to store their seeds - from envelopes in the closet to carefully mixed silicon crystals, sealed jars, and temperature controlled fridges.
Today, Norway opened the ultimate seed bank near the north pole. If your seed vault doesn't look like this, you're doing it wrong:As soon as I heard about this, I immediately envisioned my dream job: alone, in the Arctic, with high speed internet and the responsibility to thaw out and replant seeds as they became at risk of going dormant. I mean, how fun would that be? (There would need to be free coffee. But it's Norway - isn't that one of those worker's rights things those Scandinavian countries spring for, along with 36-hour work weeks and months of maternity leave?) Unfortunately, there will be no staff on-site, so my dreams of being the next Gregor Mendel - Mr. Freeze hybrid will have to wait.
The seed bank isn't open to the public; it's intended to be a last resort in case plague or fire or floods threaten our food sources. I think the logistics of this scenario need work, since there cannot possibly be enough of every kind of seed to renew world resources. But I'm sure they have a really good plan - after all, these are scientists we're talking about, right?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Down the Garden Path

I sat down with Coleman's book last night. It's about market gardening, but at some point, the difference between "ordinary" vegetable gardening and organic, sustainable market vegetable gardening is pretty subtle. He offers suggestions for the size of rows: 42" or 60" of vegetables. I went for 42" - although that garden soil looks fluffy and comfortable, I have no desire to have to lean on it to reach the middle of the plot. (There lurk nettles and goatheads and stickers, not to mention the cutest little milipedes known to man.) Unfortunately, he recommends paths designed for your walking tractor (preferably Italian, and blue). Nothing for the person who doesn't have a walking tractor. Bizarrely, this seems to be a topic neglected by those other OCD gardeners out there. 12"? 18"? 24"? How to combine the most comfortable space with as much growing ground as possible?
The math works out nicely in a 25'x25' plot with 42" rows and 18" paths, so I guess I'll plan for that for now.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Pesky Pests

With all the bad press about Japanese beetles, it's often easy to assume that we're in an all-new pest high. New varieties, growing numbers - Orem, Utah spraying the entire community (!) with pesticides that will prevent gardeners "from harvesting vegetables or fruit from their gardens for the next three years." (!!!) (http://ag.utah.gov/plantind/JB-MayorLetter.pdf)
According to the mayor, this is necessary so that the beetles do not destroy agriculture in the state of Utah. He also implies that this, along with the heavy spraying, will eradicate the Japanese beetle.
So it's in this context that I'm reading Jeffrey Lockwood's book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shapes the American Frontier.
After reading about the ravages of the locusts, which weren't confined to the American frontier at all, but in the Middle East and Europe and parts of Africa, I feel confident in saying that we really should be more appreciative of our pest problems. The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) formed tremendous swarms - in one recorded case, at least 110 miles across - that decimated everything in their path, eating not just plants but dead animals and inanimate objects (tool handles, for instance, and the clothes of the farmers who tried to kill them). They left between 100 and 150 eggs per square inch of land, consequently hatching millions upon millions of offspring. And the hotter and drier the weather, the more likely they were to devastate the land.
Reports from Salt Lake indicated that the insects would drown in the lake and then wash ashore, forming 6-foot walls of rotting insects around the lake.
So I have a suggestion for Orem: how about holding a Japanese beetle appreciation day, to acknowledge that, as voracious and invasive as the beetles are, things could always be much, much worse?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Retooling the community plan

So the land-owner who offered me space in his yard to garden apparently doesn't want to offer me much space in his yard to garden. So I'm sending in my community garden applications again - this time in several places, with the hope that waiting lists will turn into ground at some point.

I have options: the closest garden offers plots that are only 6x4 (maybe). The middle garden has slightly more space (10x8), and the farthest garden has plots between 20x20 and 25x25. Guess which one I really want?

I may still ask around the neighborhood for little pieces of ground to plant melons or winter squash - I sort of envision little bits of food plants scattered across the city. There are plenty of spaces that aren't being utilized well. It's certainly more convenient to have a garden of my own, though, and the community gardens are nice because you don't have to talk to people.

I still think that borrowing a non-gardener's land isn't a bad idea. The advantage for the owner is fresh food, a nicer looking yard (hopefully), improved soil, not having to mow . . . kind of like having a hired gardener, except some of your produce goes missing. (For most harvests, this is No Big Deal - just plop a few extra plants out.)

Friday, February 1, 2008


Calendula, or pot marigolds, were one of the first plants suggested to me when I started my garden last summer. I didn't buy any, mostly because I couldn't find seed and couldn't be bothered going to look for plants, but they're going in the earth this year.

They are Wisconsin's Herb of the Year, a title bestowed by the Master Gardeners, who have apparently run out of "real" herbs recently. (2005 was the Year of the Scented Geranium - ack.) There's lots of cultivars, but they're almost all orange-yellow and cheerful looking. The flowers are also edible; Monsoon Wedding has marvelous scenes full of (what might be) calendula, including a rapturous devouring.

They're also supposed to be good for cuts, scrapes, bites, and burns. With the possible exception of the last, the garden is precisely the place where all that happens. Most of the sources are mysteriously vague about whether the leaves or flowers or roots should be rubbed on the skin (or made into ointment, or boiled into tea), but it's worth a try. I am Tasty Meat as far as biting bugs are concerned. I'm not sure about the USDA's stance on organic producers that slather themselves in DDT (perhaps I should email them?) but I prefer to stay as pain-free as possible.

The other interesting thing I found is the shape of the seed pods. Check this out. They're sort of cashew-shaped. (Much thanks to the Wisconsin Master Gardener's Program, from whom I yoinked the pictures.) Why a cashew-shaped pod would be a reproductive advantage, I can't quite figure out. Would they catch more wind like that? Protect the seeds better from slugs and snails? Stay more intact? Perhaps it's all just an interesting coincidence - one random mutation that didn't hurt, and gradually became a feature.

Go, NOG, Go!

Ok, perhaps NOG isn't the best acronym. New Orleans Gardeners are rebuilding. Actually, I bet this isn't completely new, as I bet many people who were able and chose to return did something with the yard. The article discusses several aspects, including the decomposition of plants introduced by the hurricane - perhaps compost in disguise? - but not, surprisingly, erosion. Surely those masses of water removed or rearranged the top soil?

My favorite gardener in the profiles returned to his garden to remove all his rocks. Sure, plants can be replaced, even if you may not live to see them in their full glory, but if you have good rocks, you have to hold onto them.