Tuesday, December 29, 2009

this is what mentors are for

these are pictures of a Zea mexicana seed that i popped this evening. yesterday i soaked it in hydrogen peroxide for twenty minutes, drained it, and added boiling water to the container. i let them soak for twenty-four hours and then dropped them into two-and-one-half tablespoons of HOT vegetable oil. thirty seeds in all. one popped completely and two seeds tried. their cases split, but they didn't have enough mositure in them yet or the case was leaky, or they just didn't get hot enough. so ten percent of the seeds made an effort. but not half the effort dr. kathleen forgey has made in all this. she's adopted me intellectually in an effort to get me somewhere coherent, and i could not be more fortunate. we have been brainstorming, networking, reading, talking, and making failed attempts at this for a few months now. i succeeded this evening, but only because i stumbled into her physical anthropology course at indiana university northwest in the spring of 2008. thanks dr. forgey.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


three crops account for 71% of arable acreage in the united states...and the three agribusinesses in the graphic, along with bayer and my friends at archer daniels midland, probably supply most of the seed used to plant those three crops...the constraint this places on crop choice should be obvious, but what may not be so obvious is the impact agribusiness is having on plants' genetic diversity...industrial food wants as much as it can get in the way of cheap raw materials, and the folks in industrial agriculture are doing their best to see they get them...in order to do this they have been genetically modifying agricultural plants (particularly corn)...they have increased the plants', tolerance to living closer together...they've genetically "linked" plants to certain herbicides (liberty link corn from bayer for example) so the plant can withstand the application...but another trend is more disturbing...because of the abundance of pesticides and herbicides over the recent decades plant engineers have reached the conclusion that natural plant defenses are uncecssary...if there is an application that will eliminate the pest agribuisness will remove the genetic defense from the plant so that the energy that the plant would have devoted to defense will be transfered to growth [jackson 1980]...fine, i suppose, as long as the applications based on petrochemicals are abundant enough and cheap enough to do the job...since oil is finite you have to think that eventually those applications won't meet either criteria...then what? hope that human ingenuity comes up with a response as cheap and as effective a petrochemicals? maybe...but what if we don't? then you have a staple crop facing nature in a genetically weakened condition without the cover of a manmade defense...sounds like a disaster to me...unless we start to save the diversity that's left...one reason why all the plants and seeds in the garden are from organic growers and heirloom seed companies...i'll be saving seeds as well and am currently searching for area seedsaver groups and seed banks to share with.
hope you all have a great christmas and that we all weather the new year.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


the roots on the left in this series of photographs are those of the annual winter wheat....the ones on the right are the perennial intermediate wheat grass ( which we will be planting in the spring...i've got something like 120,000 seeds...there will be wheat grass at home and anywhere else i can get away with it as well)...a graphic demonstration of why perennials come back every year...above ground dies back, but the roots are deep enough to survive most cold...it's also a graphic demonstration of one possible reason why early agriculturalists anuualized staple crops during the process of domestication...a lot of energy that could go into producing seeds goes to developing the roots instead ( the gama grass we planted isn't supposed to seed until the end of its third season...until then everything goes into the root system)...so, perhaps, there were more calories per unit of work with annuals...and perhaps that made saving and preserving seeds for the next planting season an attractive alternative to a less work/ less production of a perennial based agricultural system...the folks at the land institute ( which is where i lifted the photograph from) are trying to breed perennials with the grain yield of annuals in an effort to overcome industrial farming's dependence on huge infusions of petrochemicals...i'm curious to see what they'll find. http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


since it's thanksgiving day eve it seems apropriate to say some public thank you's to some folks who have been extremely helpful in running down teosinte seeds for the garden....specifically, mimi williams from the usda nrcs in gainsville florida, maryanne gonter from the brooksville plant materials center in brooksville florida, and mark millard from the north central regional plant introduction center in ames, iowa...they were prompt, patient, and courteous throughout and i just wanted to say how much i appreciated all that they did to help us...here's hoping that they, and everyone else out there, have a pleasant holiday season.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Teosinte IV

the usda in florida says the annual strain of teosinte they are sending us will be here monday...good news for those who want to see if it pops like popcorn...it's supposed to and this is the only batch of seeds that will be big enough to try it with...they are sending a pound of seeds whereas the seeds i bought and the perennial strains from ames iowa have weighed in in the gram range...so the autumn planting is done, the garden is mulched, the semester is almost over, and i have tons of garden related reading to do over the break...winter may be a quiet time in the garden itself, but there will be activity in the potting shed soon enough...and there's always something else to learn.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Zea perennis

fed-ex just brought me a package of Zea perennis seeds from the usda palnt introduction center in ames, iowa...a bit over six grams worth...about 200 seeds...great! now if the research center in florida comes through with the seeds they promised we will have three seperate strains of teosinte to work with...now it's time to buckle down and come up with some worthwhile questions to ask the plants beyond why people in mexico would decide that they would make a good domesticated grass...that and planning how to raise the sub-tropical perennial strain indoors...i was aware that the garden would require any number of things from physical labor to some planning about what and where to plant...i truly was not expecting to aquire teosinte so the parameters of my research just expanded and as a result, so will my experience...a challenge to grow on.

i also prepared a bed and planted some eastern gama grass in my backyard...most likely it will be home to some intermediate wheatgrass and some teosinte in the spring...it's chock full of locust trees ( odd how they grow in pairs...just about far enough apart for a hammock) elm trees, russian olive bushes and the damnest ferral rosebush in indiana ( it is vicious and will need to be pruned with a flamethrower) as well as multiple ornamental grasses...a few more plants will be right at home in the wildlife sanctuary ( don't laugh...there was even a redtailed hawk out there the other day...just waiting to see what might turn up in the way of lunch)...spring will be a season of interest...i can feel it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

teosinte III

we have more teosinte on the way! the usda in ames iowa will be sending us a small ammount of Zea diploperenis and we will have a bash at growing some. i am inclined to try it both indoors and out doors, although i think indoors is probably the better bet for a perennial that's a sub-tropical. surely anything we grow outside will not survive the winter, and i'd really like to see if we can produce some seeds..i doubt my luck at finding this germplast ( doesn't that sound educated?) for free ( well 2/3 of it so far) is going to hold up forever. at any rate it is exciting to ponder the possibilities for the spring.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

i'm usually indifferent to wind...

...but not today....a royal pain fastening the fabric down over the straw on my own...but i am nothing if not stubborn and unyielding, so i succeded....there's six inches or better of mulch over the planted portions of the garden...in the melee of fastening the fabric down i muclhed the baggie of gama grass seeds i'd brought to plant in the garden someplace or another...imagine i'll find them in the spring ( well i wasn't going to undo that cover)...fortunately i have entirely too many gama grass seeds for this project so i will simply bring some along when i go to class monday and plant them then...no harm, no foul...i turned in two hundred pounds of compost and cow manure in the gama grass and teosinte bed (i will have to re-map the garden and scan it in)...indiana university northwest has nice lawns, but the soil is godawful for growing anything else...i haven't seen an earthworm yet either...i will be importing some in the spring or this garden is going to die on its feet ( or in bed)...so now all i am waiting on is to see if the fed's teosinte seed plants this fall or next spring..if it's the spring i think work in the garden is about done for now...just sitting around researching and planning for spring...that's all.

Monday, November 2, 2009

teosinte II

the teosinte seed i ordered from native seed search has arrived more promptly than i had supposed...they are indeed triangular, but alot smaller than i had imagined...the instructions tell me to plant in the spring, just before the last frost, so i don't think the gama grass will have a partner to winter over with...tough looking little seeds...here's hoping the grasses they produce are as hardy.

Friday, October 30, 2009


good news today about teosinte. i've been searching for seeds for a couple of weeks and yesterday was the breakthrough. the united states department of agriculture's national resource conservation service (nrcs) is sending us a pound of teosinte seed because this is an educatioanl project affilliated with a university. cool! extensive searching has also turned up

a seed conservation group in the southwestern u s. i have purchased a few grams of seeds from another strain of teosinte from them to add a bit of diversity to our planting. this is the only place i've found outside the government where you can obtain seeds...teosinte does not seem to be a wildly popular plant, and there may be good reason for that, at least around here. the usda had expressed doubt that the teosinte will produce seed at this far north a lattitude. ( in fact they have asked me to inform them if we do succeed in producing any). teosinte flowers late in the season and it will take a warm late season period for us to go to seed ( this, of course, is a common reflection on my personal condition...but it has little bearing on the matter at hand except as an expressed hope for next autumn). the seeds should be shipping on november fifth and the usda has promised detailed planting instructions. i'll be posting pictures when they arrive and are planted. thanks to joe hollis at http://www.mountaingardensherbs.com/
and john shuck at gary metals. additional thanks to dr. mik stokely and dr. kathleen forgey for helping out and just being so generally supportive.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

jerusalem artichokes

the artichokes arrived yesterday and the vendor suggested no delay in planting, so i went to campus today and after i spent a couple of hours helping with setting up the indiana university northwest anthropology club book sale that STARTS TOMORROW ( it's all for a good cause) i went to the garden and planted them...the starchy juice from the bulbs got all over my hands when i cut them before planting...it is a fabulous adhesive...the soil did not want to come off my hands when i went to wash them...sticky stuff...in reading further about these tubers i 've found that when freshly harvested that are rich in inulin...whuch means thet have little impact on blood sugar and so are beneficial to diabetics...or at least won't do them any harm...this is freshly harvested ones only...after they're stored for a time the inulin is lost and the artichokes become a more traditional starch...inulin is also beneficial to kidney function...the garden may be taking a detour into folk medicine...at least there was no rain today...a first for this gardener in this garden

Saturday, October 24, 2009

plant mobillity

" Anderson's (1952) description of agriculture as a 'transported landscape' honors the thousands of generations of cultivators who have moved seeds and transformed the world."
"Farmer's Bounty: Locating Crop Diversity in the Contemporary World" Stephen B. Brush. p.21

so where did all this stuff i'm planting start out from? a couple of the answers suprised me...names are misleading.

arugula originates along the southern and eastern mediterranean from portugal south through turkey.
asparagus is native to europe, north africa, and western asia.
elephant garlic got its start in central china.
fennel is another mediterranean plant.
jerusalem artichokes caught me completely off guard...among other places they are native to indiana.
anyone who doesn't know that potatoes originated in the highlands of what is now peru could be in dutch with dr. forgey.
spinach was born in central and southwest asia.
tomatoes began their journey to italy in south america.
misleadingly welsh onions are from central asia.
winter savory is native to southern europe.
and anyone who thinks chinese yams are from china would be correct.

so not only have humans experimented with plant traits over the millennia, they've also done quite a bit of tinkering around with where they might adapt to and perhaps grow better than in their native range...something to think about next time i'm in the garden...which, i think, will be tomorrow since the jerusalem artichokes came in today's mail and it's been a few weeks since the garden has seen any activity...that and the fact that they have to reside in my refrigerator until i plant them, and god only knows what someone here may mistake them for...if it's in the refrigerator it MUST be food...maybe the gama grass will find its home too.

Friday, October 23, 2009

the artichokes are in the mail

i have word from winslow maine to day that the jeruasalem atrichokes have shipped and that i should expect to see the in three to eight days...good news, it means that i can finish up the autumn planting on halloween day...set the artichokes and gama grass in and, if the weather co-operates, mulch the garden for winter...then i can step back, do some more reading about organics and gardening ( Botany for Gardeners repraches me every time i see it in a pile of books...demands to be read) and hypotheses about the origins of agriculture and peice together what direction this all will take...the few months between autumn planting and the start of seed germination may seem like they'd be quiet ones but from a practical and theoretical standpoint there's too much to do to stand still.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

take a break

it's another rainy saturday and the garden and i are both taking a time out...mostly because there's not a lot to do in the garden this weekend...poor weather in winslow maine has delayed the jerusalem artichokes...i spoke to johnny's select seeds yesterday and they do have a record of my order and assure me they are due to be shipped in the coming week...with any luck i will have them before the week is out and can spend part of my birthday getting them in the ground...that will be it for fall planting...well , that and the gama grass...mulch the garden after the first hard frost and then do some more research into what to expect until i have to start germinating seeds for the spring...all the seeds are here, the only thing left to order is seed potatoes and that won't happen until next year (probably...unless i find some grower who will accept one earlier)...it's been a pretty smooth ride so far...can't help but wonder what the first major bump will be...any garden psychics out there?

Saturday, October 10, 2009


the chinese yams arrived during this past week, so i took advantage of a miserably rainy friday morning to plant them. they came from joe hollis in north carolina and i wasn't sure how long they'd been out of the ground...didn't want to hesitate. when i took them out of the plastic bag the newspaper they were wrapped in was still damp so i know they didn't dry out. on top of that they're dormant, i am confident they arrived in fine shape. i planted them about four feet apart...joe tells me i'll have to dig down about three feet if i plan to harvest them, and since i'm going to have to quantify how much this garden produces i will be obligated to dig a hole a yard deep and try to avoid damaging the roots. now all they have to do is survive the winter. we will be mulching the garden to a depth of six inches, that should do the job. all that's left to plant this fall is the jerusalem artichokes and the gama grass. i haven't heard a word about the artichokes. the supplier sent me an order verification and said they'd ship in time to be put in this autumn. i have emailed them asking for a probable shipping date...we'll see. so far things have been coming together...i hope our luck holds...the skill we will continue to aquire. as part of my reading towards this i picked up a copy of Botany for Gardeners by brian capon who is a professor emeritus of botany at california state university in los angeles and from a brief perusal seems to be able to write in a style even i can understand. more as it becomes available

Thursday, October 8, 2009


so what am i doing here? basically i am asking descendants of wild ancestors who lived in heterogenious environments to come together and thrive in a more homogenious one consisting of a 184 square foot garden. true they're domesticated, artificially selected for size, color, flavor, etc. , but i'm betting they have some particular needs left over from their heterogeneous, wild roots.

The Gardener's Guide to Growing Organic Food by tanya l.k. denckla gives a general idea of what constitutes high, medium, and low water needs. plants the require heavy watering need one gallon of water per square foot per week, which equals roughly 1.4 to 1.6 inches of water. medium watering is three-quarters of a gallon per week or about 1 to 1.2 inches of water, and low watering is one-half gallon or 0.8 inches of water. using The gardener"s Guide, Growing Your Own Vegatables by carla emery and lorne edwards forkner, and information from the suppliers i noted in a previous blog i have put together a watering schedule for the eleven vegatable and herbs in the garden. (the grasses are not domesticated and so while i will water to ensure germination, after that they're on their own unless conditions get so bad it looks like they won't survive.)

arugula- low
asparagus- high
elephant garlic- rainwater only ( once again, unless it apears that without help the plant won't survive)
fennel- low
jerusalem artichokes- medium
northern tepehuan teosinte-high, once a week.
potatoes- medium until they blossom, then heavy from blossoming until harvest.
spinach- low
tomatoes- medium
welsh onions- medium
winter savory- medium, but it likes to dry out between watering
yams- medium

there seem to be some pretty low maintainence plants in there as far as water goes,and some that need more care. the next question i have ( and i see more research in the offing) is do these special requirements represent holdovers from ancestral genes not selected out during domestication, or are they purposeful interventions by people in the process of domestication to produce a final product that's larger, more nutritious, or tasty?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

King Corn

in the course of listing materials that i used i neglected to mention the excellent film by curt ellis and ian cheney about the industrial uses of corn and its detremental impact on the environment and on us...if you get the chance check it out.


this garden got its start with the reading i was doing in the spring and summer of 2008. i had just finished taking a physical anthropology course at indiana university northwest that was taught by dr. kathleen forgey. her enthusiasm for her subject matter opened up a number of new areas for me to think about and explore, human origins, evolution, and genetics among them. we also dealt with the origins of agriculture. as i recall it was a time of rising food prices and there were a number of food riots in mega-cities around the globe which put the topic of food and food production in the public eye. additionally i had been reading The Ominvore's Dilemma by michael pollan. as usual one book led to another. pollan quoted freely from works by wendell berry and so my next read was his book The Unsettling of America. wendell made some excellent points about the unsustainability of industrial agriculture, but his outlook was a bit too utopian for my taste, so i looked around for more material. there is a suprising ammount of it and my reading list burgeoned. The Story of Corn by betty fussel, Food Politics by marion nestle, Guns, Germs, and Steel by jared diamond, Farmer's Bounty by steven brush, Eating the Sun by oliver morton, An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by jonathan silvertown ( thanks rachel!), Movable Feasts by sarah murray, Against the Grain by richard manning, The Soil and Health by sir albert howard, and The End of Food by paul roberts. this last book touched on the formation of mega slums through environmental degerdation and the destruction of traditional agriculture in the developing world because of imports of cheap subsidized food from the industrial world. this led me to Planet of Slums by mike davis which was an eye-opener about a multitude of issues. paul roberts' book also discussed the unsustainability of industrial agriculture as practiced in the united states because of its complete dependence on petrochemicals from producing fuels for machinery to the inputs for chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides ( all of which degrade the environment in myriad ways). this led to an investigation of resource depletion through, among others, richard heinberg's book Peak Everything. in the course of an email exchange with richard heinberg i mentioned an interest in agriculture and food production. he, in turn, suggested that i look into the work of wes jackson, so i read New Roots for Agriculture and aslo took a look at the website for his research group The Land Institute http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v their work in developing perennial cereal grains had a direrct impact on the perennial garden ( as did the input of dr. forgey who has been unstinting in her support and enthusiasm). the garden was not an impulsive idea. its gestation has been rooted in reading and a good deal of thought about how we came to where we find ourselves and what can be done to change the way we think about food and food production. we have some ideas about what we're looking for and surely more will suggest themselves as we go along. we will share what we learn.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

opening day

i got to the garden at 6:50 this morning and two-and-a-half hours and 280 pounds of compost and composted cow manure i had beds prepared for the jerusalem artichokes, chinese yams, welsh onions, and elephant garlic, and the garlic and onions in the ground. the university maintainence staff skimmed the sod off the plot with a bobcat (thanks! you don't know how much my back appreciates that!) and it's a 7.5 mile one-way trip from my house to the campus...other than that i intend to invest as few petrochemicals in this as possible. there's still the fuel burned in shipping in the plants, seeds, and manure, but it's a garden of perennials so hopefully ( if i do this correctly) those will mostly be one-time expenditures. i have found some good, patient suppliers around the country whose committment to organic plants and non-transgentic, heirloom seeds have gotten me off to a good start. joe hollis at http://www.mountaingardensherbs.com/ is sending us the chinese yams from north carolina. the jerusalem artichokes and the winter savroy are coming from johnny's selected seeds in winslow, maine. the arugula nd tomatoes are from heirloom seeds in west finley, pennsylvania. the spinach is from baker creek seeds in mansfeild, missouri, and the welsh onions came from j.l. hudson seeds in la haonda, california. inputs from all over, and i am sure there are many more i will come across as i shop for organic seed potatoes in the spring. i am new at prennial gardening...all my previous experience was with annuals, so this will be a learning experience on a multitude of levels...hopefully the curve will not be too long. perennials have been around a long time...longer than humans...i will trust in the plants' evolutionary history to supply the deficiencies in my knowledge and abillities...they are much better at growing than i am. i am pretty much a technological illiterate ( it is a testament to the idiot-proof nature of modern computers that i am able to post blogs...this may or may not be a good thing ) so as soon as i can figure out how to upload the pictures i am taking from the digital camera i bought ( time to dip into the instruction manual ) i will add some illustrations...until then...peace