Friday, December 23, 2016

Watch the Sword, Not the Flag!

People, look at the sword, not the flag!! Trump is a master of deceit, deftly focusing attention away from the real stories. Real stories include rampant conflicts of interest, deliberate manipulation of news in ways that harm political enemies, cabinet appointments of people who plan to dismantle the agencies they're  assigned to shepherd, and fishing expeditions for the names of career civil servants who worked on particular projects.


But there's also a dual purpose in the scintillating hint that the nuclear arms race is about to be revived. One of the first steps that every authoritarian / fascist / totalitarian regime takes is to create a perceived threat which is then utilized to justify allocation of resources and erosion of liberty and privacy. Both Putin and Trump need an excuse to rattle their sabers and create crises, in order to justify what comes next. 


If you are a Republican and have read this far and think the poor little liberal has lost their mind, be warned. Consolidation of power by the would be despot takes awhile. The first who will  be attacked are the old-school Republicans who stand up for principles of fairness and decency, like McCain, Romney, and Lindsey. But after that, anyone who crosses the fascist Right will be targeted. It took Stalin 23 years to fully consolidate his power, but by 1940, Stalin was the only survivor, literally, from among the top political officials at the time of Lenin's death. 


You say it can't happen here, but it can. The only gate that prevents this happening in any society is the gate imposed by those who recognize the signs and stand against it.




Friday, December 9, 2016

Why President Elect Trump Does Not Represent Politics As Usual (Part I: COMMONALITIES OF FASCIST REGIMES)

No one, ever, wakes up and says, "I think I'll become an alcoholic today."  Alcoholism comes on slowly, taking us unaware, until we find ourselves unable to resist its inexorable grip.  In a similar way, this is how Fascism overtakes societies.  No democratic society makes a deliberate decision to give up freedom in favor of Fascism.  It comes on slowly.  We make compromises in favor of what seems to be the greater good.  The compromises then become larger and larger until we find ourselves inextricably tied up in more than we bargained for.

These small, baby steps have been happening in the USA for a long time.  I won't go into details to support that statement. Those who choose not to see, would not believe me anyway, no matter what evidence I present.  Let me merely say, "He who has eyes, let him see, and he who has ears, let him hear."  The USA is well on its way to becoming a Fascist state.  This is not a "Democrat" or "Republican" thing, either.  In a future blog post, I will show how policies of both major political parties have failed to staunch these tendencies.

Moreover, Trump is not an anomaly.  He is a logical result, merely taking a tendency one step further.   But he is, indeed, extreme.  This is why his election does NOT represent  "politics as usual."  The water has turned from tepid to hot. It's time to take notice, and stop it, before it's too late.



No one wants to hear that, including me.   But, if you are willing to be honest, take a hard look at these characteristics I've compiled below, with characteristics of Fascist regimes.  Judge for yourself where the USA falls on this scale.  Whether you believe me now, or not, it is important for all of us to know the following signs of the slide into Fascism, and resist wherever we find it:  

Thursday, December 8, 2016

On Being Nice

Nice people made the best Nazis. They just wanted everybody to get along and get with the program, be unified, get behind economic development and making Germany great again.

Why President Elect Trump Does Not Represent Politics as Usual (Part II)

Why are people upset about Trump, you ask? How could one possibly see any resemblance to Nazi Germany (or any Fascist regime)?

Image is Hitler at a 1932 political rally, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Is this not an over the top expression of paranoia? After all, this is a free country! There are no stazi troops marching in the street, bursting into homes, burning books, right?  "What's there to be alarmed about," you ask? 

Well, don't forget that, in 1925, most ordinary, freedom loving Germans never would have imagined that this could happen to them, either. This was a country steeped in Christian values, governed by decent people.  But there is no inoculation that protects us from human nature. No one wants to own the label "fascist," but , human societies are all at risk of sliding into rule by authoritarian regimes. This has happened many times in history.  Nazi Germany is merely one of recent ones. 

One thing notable about Nazi Germany, however, was the shock to the Western European consciousness. How could this have happened, here, to us?!  In the aftermath of World War II, numerous scholars, ethicists, philosophers studied the issue. I've read some of these.  I've felt very uncomfortable about what felt like a slide toward these tendencies I could feel, but the 2015 - 2016 presidential election had a different, more ominous feel.  How might it have felt to an ordinary German, living in the 1920's and 1930's?  After all, one doesn't jump from being an ordinary, moral person one day and exterminating a race of people the next.  How did that happen?  Could it be happening today, of course in a different context and  expressed in a different way, but a similar kind of event?

Check out this first hand account of how one person  experienced the slide from decency and tolerance into a different world, piece by piece, bit by bit:

Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble.' Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist.'

And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. ...

But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked - if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in '43 had come immediately after the 'German Firm' stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in '33. But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying 'Jew swine,' collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.

Exerpt above is from They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945,  (University of Chicago Press. Reissued in paperback, April, 1981), in which Milton Mayer interviewed people who had lived through the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Time For Fasting?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own" Isaiah 58

Friday, June 24, 2016

It Takes Good Soil

I harvested my first cantaloupe today. 


I ordered heirloom cantaloupe seeds from a  specialty supplier. They promised a delicious, sweet, fragrant fruit of superior quality. 

I started the seedlings in a flat growing tray.  I used sterile, fertile soil made that was formulated especially for starting seeds. I tended them carefully, making sure they got optimal sun during the day and were sheltered from cold weather at night.  When the seedlings were well-established, I transferred them to a nice, sunny spot in the garden. I faithfully watered them every day. I fertilized them occasionally, too. 

I don't know why I was so surprised when the vines first grew pretty yellow flowers, and then I noticed little cantaloupes growing! I was so excited!


I was expecting the fruit to grow much larger, so I thought harvest was a few weeks away.  But then, several days ago, one of them started to turn yellow. Yesterday, I thought I would check to see whether it might be ready to pick. To my surprise, when I touched the cantaloupe, it rolled right off the stem!  

I picked up the little thing in my hand and smelled it. It had a mild fragrance that smelled like a fruity perfume. I took it inside, along with the rest of what I picked that morning.


I could hardly wait to cut it! But I decided to wait and share it with my family for breakfast.

So, this morning when I prepared breakfast, I cut it in half, scooped out the seeds, and peeled and sliced the little thing. Then, we sat down to to eat this cantaloupe,  fresh from our garden. I was  imagining how much better it would be than the store-bought variety. I was so excited when I took the first bite of this cantaloupe I had grown in my very own garden!

Boom! What a disappointment! 

Not only was it not sweet, not fragrant, and not particularly flavorful, but the flavor it did have seemed to taste like chemicals! If it had been a store-bought cantaloupe, I would have thrown it away immediately! Instead of throwing it away immediately, I ate a few more bites and made my child take a taste. Then I said, "OK, we have tried it! We can put the rest in the compost heap!" 

But I also thought, there really is a lesson in life here. Not just for growing cantaloupe, but for growing anything! Here is the lesson: 


GOOD SOIL IS IMPORTANT! 


You see, I had planted the cantaloupe in sand. Yes, I had watered it.  Yes, I had fertilized it. But these measures were  not enough to overcome the original deficiency of the soil it was planted in.  I had supplied some water and some nutrients.  The plant survived, but it didn't thrive as it could have. It didn't receive the rich variety of nutrients and minerals, in just the right amounts, that would have made this plant strong and the fruit delectable.  Without good soil, it was impossible for the plant to reach its full potential.  

I now, if I may, let me carry this a bit further. It is not just fruits and vegetables and things we grow in gardens that need good soil. Children need good soil, too!  

Whether we are parents, or not, all of us have opportunity to help create the soil that the children of our world grow in.  Will we provide an environment where they will thrive, or will we merely throw in enough nutrients that they survive?  That is a choice we make not only as parents, but as a community and as a society. 

On a personal level, we can nurture children by supplying the good soil of positive comments, positive guidance, constructive discipline, encouragement of their interests and abilities, providing them with opportunities. On a community level, we can volunteer to help with activities related to children.  We can mentor.  We can tutor.  We can personally support the schools and teachers,  churches and community organizations that provide services to children. On a national and policy level, we can take positions and advocate for policies that protect our children and serve the interests of nurturing the next generation.  We can even (heaven forbid!) lobby on behalf of the social institutions that support and protect our children.  

Think about it. Our children are our future. They are relying on us to provide the soil that is needed for their optimal development. Yes, we can throw some fertilizer and throw some water on the seeds and think we have done a good job, but have we really? Have we really plowed the earth and created an environment that is nurturing for every child? Or have we instead merely paid lip service to the idea of doing what is right?





Saturday, June 11, 2016

Attack of the Squash Vine Borers

The first time I ever tried to grow squash on my own was the summer of 1982. My squash plants sprouted. They grew. They were beautiful. And then, boom! Over the period of one or two weeks, every one of them wilted and died.

When I examined the dead plants, their roots seemed rotten. The next time I tried to grow squash was a few years later. I was careful not to overwater. The same thing happened. At the time, I had no idea why these beautiful plants would suddenly just rot at the root, keel over, and die. I gave up on trying to plant squash.

When I started my garden this year, it had been a long time since I had grown a garden. Due to the effects of faded memory, and lured by the thought of delicious, fresh squash, I forgot that I had no green thumb when it came to squash. I planted three different varieties in my garden. 

I planted a yellow crooked neck variety purchased from a garden shop, a zucchini called "green tiger," and another zucchini called "early bulam." 

My six yellow squash did not thrive particularly well. One or two wilted and died. I attributed it to my lack of green thumb. The rest, however, grew and began to produce little squash. 


To my amazement, the green tiger zucchini really took off! They turned into big, bold plants that could have been used in ornamentals in a landscape.


When I planted the zucchini, I put them in the same space as English sugar snap peas.



My thought was that by the time the zucchini plants were large, the peas would be done producing and it would be time to pull them out. This, in fact, did happen.

At some point, the peas were dying, and also shaded out by the squash, and the squash were crowded and needed more room. I removed the peas from the bed. This disrupted the squash a little bit, but the most significant thing was that it prompted me to notice the squash closer to their roots. I saw that the same rot that had affected some of the yellow squash was beginning to afflict the tiger zucchini. No! I turned to my new friend, the Internet, to investigate squash diseases. 

That is when I learned about squash vine borers.   When I looked closer, indeed, this is what I discovered was  infesting my plants! I speculate that it was probably the cause of death of all my squash plants in my previous garden endeavors!

You can read about squash vine borers on the Internet, and you can also watch YouTube videos about them. (As an example, the University of Minnesota extension service has a great web page about vine borers: HERE). My goal is not to duplicate that information here. Rather, I want to raise an alert about what vine borers are and share how I have kept my plants alive this year (so far). 

The adult squash vine borer is a flying moth that is brightly colored and shaped a little bit like a wasp. It lays its egg on the stalk of the plant, near the root. When the egg hatches, the tiny grub immediately bores into the hollow center of the squash leaf stalk. Once inside the stalk, it is not reachable by predators such as birds or pesticides. It tunnels inside the stalk, eating and growing. Eventually, it grows so large and eats so much of the stalk that the root becomes disconnected from the top of the plant (which then dies). When the vine borer grub has reached full size, it exits the plant and goes into the soil, where it pupates for a year before emerging as an adult month.

The first line of defense for vine borers (and many other flying pests) is to use landscape netting over your plants that lets light and water in but keeps insects out.  This prevents the adult from laying eggs on the stalk. Internet resources say that some people also put foil and wrappings around the stalks where the insects lay eggs, to create a barrier there. Neither of these is practical for me. Pesticides that kill the insect can help, but I am trying to avoid pesticides. 

If prevention does not keep borers at bay, the only remedy is to find and kill the grub. A method discussed on Internet resources is to slit the stalk until the grub is located, and then kill it.  Each plant may have several grubs. They must all be located and killed. (They might be tiny and hard to see, too!)  Home remedies also involve burying part of the plant above the site where the grub has been removed, so that the plant can grow new roots above the spot where the old root has been destroyed.

Back to the story of my garden.  

When I found the squash vine borers in my squash, it turned out that it was a big benefit to have the squash planted in well decomposed straw bales. The loam they were planted in was so loose that I could use my hands to scoop out a large chunk of planting medium, pull out the entire plant (roots and all), excise the vine borer, and then replant the squash after its "surgery" to remove the borer. 

My observation was that healthy plant tissue was firm, whereas areas affected by the borers were mushy and rotting. Following this cue, I found it easy to use a tool to dig out the infected tissue, and to locate and destroy the borer. After experimenting with various knives and metal objects, I found that my favorite tool to use is a wooden barbecue skewer. The pointy tip can be used to scrape at and remove diseased tissue, and it also provides a fine point to use with some precision when locating and digging out the grub.

Here are some photos: 


The stick I am using here to show the rotten root is a long, heavy duty wooden barbecue skewer. The rot is my cue that there is a vine borer inside. 


I have scraped away rotten tissue and the grub is now exposed. This one is about half the maximum size, but much larger than the tiny ones that must also be caught and removed. 


It turns out, there were four grubs in this plant. All connection to the leaves on the top had already been destroyed. 


Even though the connection to the root had been destroyed, this is what the top of the plant still looked like.


A grub, and the rotten area all around it. 


Fortunately, the root part of a squash plant will root very readily. The first time I dug a grub out of a plant, I brought the plant inside, trimmed off the rotten part of the roots, and set it in a cup to root. Within a week, the plant had nice new roots, and I was able to replant it outside in the garden.


Locating and digging out the vine borers, has been my least favorite part of growing my garden this year, so far.  The rotten roots are yucky, and digging the grubs out is gross. I would guess that of the plants that have been infected, I have been able to save about 75%. 

I have treated some without digging them up, just by using the wooden skewer to gouge and scrape into the rotten part, and finding the grub and destroying it. After I was certain that all grubs had been destroyed, I re-covered the root portions of the plant so that they would re-root. Some of the plants actually re-rooted in two places, effectively bypassing the areas damaged by the grubs.

Of the plants that had more severe damage, I was only able to save a few. Here is one (shown below). 

A plant with root damage does not need to be focusing any energy on fruits or losing water from leaves. I removed the fruits from this plant, but when I replanted it originally, the leaves looked fine. There was so much root damage, however,  that the leaves could not get water from the root, and they died. After they died, I snipped them off with sterile scissors. Notice that the plant is now putting up new leaves from the center.


The trellis around the plant is supporting a piece of cloth that I am using to shade the plant from the sun, to reduce stress from transpiration. 

At present, squash plants are on sale at a local garden shop for one dollar each. It may have been easier just to pull these up and go get new ones.  However, there are a couple of reasons I did not. These plants are many weeks old. It would take a new plant a long time to catch up to where these ones already are. Additionally, the tiger zucchini is not available locally, and I am out of seeds. At present, these plants are producing about 10 zucchini squash per week.

From what I read, vine borers have a definite time frame, and after that time frame they are no longer active and don't pose a threat in the garden. I am hoping that the measures I've  taken will pull my plants through until the threat from borers has passed. 

I also note that plant parts that might be infected with grubs should be removed from the garden completely and not composted. After the vine borer finishes growing inside the plant stalk, it exits into the ground and pupates for a year, before emerging as an adult. Since I have tried to salvage my plants rather then completely remove them, I probably have pupa inside my straw bills. I will not try to grow squash there next year! 



A "harvest" from my garden last week. Photo shows yellow squash and the tiger zucchini.



Saturday, May 28, 2016

Learning to be an Organic Gardener

When I was growing up, penicillin was considered  a wonder drug. It was widely prescribed to save lives and reduce morbidity.  Similarly, pesticides were considered to be a farmers friend, widely used to reduce loss of food to insects and improve quality.  I'm painting with a broad stroke here, but suffice it to say that the benefits of pesticides in improving the food supply were considered to outweigh the negative aspects associated with their use.

In my earliest memories of gardening, DDT was still in use. After it was banned due to its harmful effects on the environment, my family switched to using sevin and malathion. We considered it a blessing to have food unblemished by the ravages of insects and grubs. We were always careful, however, to use the recommended concentrations for each plant and also not to eat the plants until the appropriate time had elapsed since the last time the point was sprayed. Knowledge of the application schedule of the pesticide enabled us to refrain from eating the food while it still had pesticide residue in it. 

Monitoring pesticide use is not something one can do in when foods are purchased from a market. Any market, not just a large commercial one.  Just as an example, I went to a farmers market last week and purchased beautiful, yellow squash from a farmer who had grown them himself, locally. I told him that squash vine borers had attacked my squash. I asked him what he used against them. He replied that he has never had a problem with vine borers, because he sprays with sevin.  How much sevin?  When?  If he's spraying the stems down where vine borers get, that means he's also spraying the fruit!  Anytime we purchase food from a third-party, we are relying on everyone in that chain of distribution to have engaged in safe practices, which we must largely accept on faith. Sometimes that faith is warranted, and sometimes it is not.

This has been a long and winding way of explaining that I was not raised as an organic gardener.  Even if one is not organic, the benefits of knowing what and when has been sprayed are significant.  However, there are a lot of other reasons to go organic, and I've tried over the years.  I haven't always known what I was doing, and so I've had mixed success.  For example, a memorable moment was the time I invited my grandparents for a meal of veggies all cooked fresh from my garden.  I don't remember everything I cooked, but I remember how proud I was, the care I took in preparation and presentation, and then "the moment."  My grandfather pointed out to me the worms that were in the carefully grown, washed, and prepared broccoli.  In spite of my care to search the broccoli for worms, they had been the same color as the plant, and I had not seen them.  During cooking, they grew lighter and were now clearly visible!!!  I'm glad we could laugh about it, and it was indeed a learning experience!!    The techniques of organic gardening are something I've had to learn on my own, gradually and through trial and error.

Insects seem to love the plants in my garden as much as I do!  When one is gardening on a very small scale, one simple measure is to take the time to inspect each plant daily. It is somewhat yucky, but when a caterpillar, grub, or insect is found on each plant, take it off and destroy it. Sometimes caterpillars are very well camouflaged. A close inspection is needed, including looking for telltale signs of their presence. For example, look underneath leaves for eggs and squish the eggs, and also watch out for little black specks on the plants, which can be a sign of caterpillar poop. The larger one's garden, or the less time one has, the more bothersome this daily chore becomes.  One wishes for a bit more efficient method .... especially when there is a full scale, frontal attack as has happened this year to me. 

The first assault on my garden this year was the attack of the flea beatles on all of my brassicas (bok choi, broccolini, etc.), as shown in the photo below.  I learned, too late, that the best way to protect my crop from them was by using netting that lets sun and water in but keeps insects out.  Once they were on my plants, it was too late. to stop the assault from the air.  Some other plan of action was needed. 


My first move was to go to the store and purchase some Insecticidal Soap.  Marketed as safe for organic gardeners, it worked like a charm.   I later learned there are also sticky traps that catch the beetles when they jump or move from plant to plant, but I didn't pursue that because the soap had already done the trick.  (After these dudes do their nasty work above ground, another part of their life cycle apparently involves becoming grubs and eating the roots of plants!)  Then, aphids attacked my sugar snap peas.  Cabbage worms attacked my broccolini some more.  Various bugs began chomping on other plants.  It looked like I was going to be needing a lot of the stuff!  After purchasing and using up three small spray bottles of insecticidal soap, I began looking for a recipe I could make from home and reuse the spray bottles. 

The Internet is such a great resource. I use it all the time to look up information about gardening. I just happened upon this webpage, for instance, which has 12 recipes that are helpful for a home organic gardener:  http://www.veggiegardener.com/12-homemade-natural-remedies-for-the-garden/ 

The recipe I followed this morning for insecticidal soap is from a different webpage, slightly different from the webpage above. The key ingredient in both is a small amount of liquid soap mixed into a quart or gallon of water (depending on quantity needed). The ingredient must be soap, and not detergent. This is because the fatty acid in the soap is what kills the insect. Detergent does not have the same ingredient.

Insecticidal soap is safe for humans, plants, animals and the ecosystem.  Using ingredients that are found in an ordinary household, it kills bugs by dissolving their outside covering and entering their vulnerable cells. Insecticidal soap works best on small insects with soft bodies.

If you have a small garden, you can re-use a hand pump spray bottle.  If you have a large garden, I recommend a pump sprayer devoted to your garden "chemicals."  (Be sure to label your chemicals appropriately,  as well, include a yucky face picture so small children will know not to drink it!)

Here is one recipe for insecticidal soap.  I am thinking that because it makes the plant taste like hot pepper and soap, it might also be a deterrent for other critters like rabbits or deer, but I can't make a guarantee of that! 

Measure four cups of water into a container.  (I suggest using a container you can pour from, like a pitcher.)  Then, add the following:
  • 1 teaspoon liquid Murphy's Oil Soap
  • 4 Tablespoons of ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil
 Mix well.  Use a funnel to pour it into a spray bottle.  

Anything that's not good for one biological creature is likely not to be beneficial to another.  Meaning, the chemicals contained in the soap are not particularly friendly to the leaves on your plants.   As you can see, nothing in the soap itself is inherently poisonous, but your body would not be too happy if you drank it.  Similarly, your plants may thank you if it protects them from getting eaten alive, but the chemicals in the soap is not what a plant would naturally choose to be bathed in!   If insecticidal soap is put on plants that are stressed, or if it is mixed in a form that is too concentrated, it can damage the leaves of your plants!

Before applying insecticidal soap, it would be wise to test it on a small area of a plant to make sure it doesn't burn the leaves of your particular plants.  Additionally, time of day of application can make a difference.  Apply insecticidal soap after plants have been well watered, during a cool time of day, when the plants are not stressed by sun, heat, or drought.  

Also, don't spray insecticidal soap on flowers or on the good insects that you are relying on as pollenators for your garden.  Bees and other pollenators are most active in mid-morning.  Spray insecticidal soap either very early, or late in the afternoon after the bees have gone to bed.  This will also coincide with the time of day when your plants will not be stressed by intense sun.

A bee on a cucumber blossom in my garden

Insecticidal soap will be washed off in a rain or every time you water your plants.  Use this information to your advantage.  If it rains, you may need to reapply.  Similarly, once it does its job of killing bugs, you may choose to wash it off the plants.  

Saturday, May 21, 2016

My 2016 Tomato Selections

Enjoyment of delicious, homegrown tomatoes is one reason to grow a kitchen garden. Some people who have room to grow only one item in a pot choose to devote their space to a tomato.

In the Deep South, where I live, people love their "'mater sandwiches." The simplest way to make one is to smear white bread with mayonnaise, add a giant, sick slab of fresh, homegrown tomato from a giant tomato, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Of course, there are variations. Some people toast the bread and add bacon and lettuce to make a BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tomato) sandwich. I personally enjoy adding fresh basil and a slice of fresh mozzarella cheese to my tomato sandwich, with a touch of balsamic vinegar.  In the Deep South, we also enjoy slicing a tangy, firm, green tomato into thick slabs, breading it with some salted cornmeal, and lightly frying it, to make fried green tomatoes. Fried green tomatoes are usually served with a topping similar to hollandaise sauce. 

When I was a child, my mother grew cherry tomatoes, in addition to the larger ones. To me, these tasted sweeter as well as tangier. I could never get enough of them. As an adult, I compensate by growing extra. As many get eaten in the garden as make it into the kitchen.

While common varieties that ship well (and hence can be sold at markets) are adequate, connoisseurs rave over this or that heirloom variety.  While some heirloom varieties are also available in farmers markets, they are also expensive. People who grow their own tomatoes don't just save on cost. They also get to savor the superior texture and taste that can be achieved from a home garden.

Tomatoes take at least 75 days to produce fruit from seed. They require warm temperatures to germinate, but they stop producing when temperatures go above 90 or 95 degrees F.  (When choosing varieties, pay attention to heat or cold tolerance, something I learned this year.)  Because of these temperature demands, most gardeners either start their seedlings indoors (when it's still too cold for them outside) or purchase plants in order to get a head start on the growing season. If they can be kept alive, tomatoes also produce fruit when temperatures are cooler in the fall, up until the first freeze. In addition to nitrogen, they like potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium in their soil.

This year, I purchased a half-dozen Better Boy tomato seedlings from Lowes (some are shown in the picture below). 



I also ordered some heirloom varieties that I started from seed, outdoors after the weather was warm enough. 

Relying on the Better Boys for basic red tomatoes, the seeds I ordered were Prudens Purple, Aunt Ruby Green, and Blueberry. The skin of the "blueberry" tomato is actually blue when ripe.  I also purchased one each of a Cherokee and a yellow plum (cherry) tomato at a specialty garden shop. Hence, if all goes well, I will have tomatoes that are red, yellow, green, purple, and blue! 




More of the ongoing tomato saga to follow later .... 


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Three Personal Benefits to Me of Growing a Kitchen Garden

In two previous blog posts I have discussed practical benefits of kitchen gardens (cost, health, and taste) and collective benefits (environmental, sustainability, and building community). Today, I would like to discuss six more personal, intangible factors that keep me returning to my habit of kitchen gardening.


Slower Pace

I have a "day job" that can be fast paced and stressful. Committing a half hour per day to gardening helps me carve out personal space, engage in an activity very different from my other vocation, and restore a work life balance.  

Introspection Time

 For me personally, gardening time is quiet time. It is a long moment of silence. It is a time to look at some item in detail, whether it is weeds or bugs or dirt or new plants. It involves focusing attention on something that is not related to work or stress or other things in life. It allows for creative interruption and regrouping of ideas in a way that benefits the way I think in other areas of life.

Connectedness With Land

Watching a garden grow, on a daily basis, sometimes feels akin to waiting for a pot to boil. (I am alluding to the adage, "a watched pot never boils.")  Indeed, gardens grow even slower than the water boils! They take months, sometimes years, to reach maturity! Yet, grow and change they do!  Inexorably, plants grow, mature, wilt, and die. It doesn't hurt us to experience this cycle of life, change, and death, on a different pace than what we see in our daily, hectic, industrial lives. It is good to remember that even when things seem to be standing still, they are in fact moving forward. This leads to seasonality and connection with changing seasons, as well. Gardens remind us of seasons. They remind that seasons are real, that there are times for doing things and times for refraining.  They remind us to be patient. And they also remind us that fruit comes to those who do their part and wait. 

Self Sufficiency

There is something simply satisfying about providing food for the table. Whether it is a sprig of basil on a sandwich, parsley in a tabouli, or a curry made all from home grown vegetables, there is a satisfaction that comes from being able to say, "I grew this." 

Connectedness With Heritage

My first memory of gardening was when my mother showed me how to weed the corn seedlings that were popping up in our garden. She showed me which plants to pull up and which to leave in the ground. Then she sent me to work on my row, while she did hers. When she came back, I learned that I had pulled up all the corn seedlings and left the weeds! Fortunately, there was still time to replant, and one must admit that it was a memorable mother daughter time! Other memories of gardening involve my grandparents, my uncles, my father. All passing along their collective wisdom and a heritage that includes growing plants and living a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle. This is not the only connection with the past, however. My grandparents learned their farming practices from their parents, who learned from theirs, etc. When I pick up a hoe to weed, I imagine many ancestors before me who used an almost identical tool to do almost the same thing. The fact is, that I am a hobbyist whereas they were working to provide table sustenance through long winter months. Nevertheless, gardening connects me with them, with that heritage, and with the skills of self-sufficiency that they passed along to me.

Connectedness With Future

Just as my parents and grandparents passed their skills and ideas along to me, so I also want impart those to my children. I have wonderful memories of sharing the preparation of soil, planting of seeds, harvesting, cooking, and eating garden produce with my own children. As such, the heritage of my past lives on into the future, passing memory and family story to the next generation. Gardening facilitates the sharing of values and things that I value with those whom I particularly value.



Community Benefits of Growing a Kitchen Garden

In an earlier blog post, I listed cost, health, and taste as three basic reasons to start a kitchen garden. Those are individual benefits.



Today I want to mention a few ways that our kitchen gardens benefit our communities.  This is significant, because collectively our kitchen gardens increase sustainability in a world where it's important for each of us to live lives that reduce drain on world resources. 

As of 2016, the world population is close to 7.4 Billion people. We can't help it that each of us needs to eat, but if we live more sustainably, we collectively can stretch the earth's resources and maintain our blue planet as a place of beauty for all people now and for future generations. Current industrial agricultural practices don't do that. 

The list of damaging industrial agricultural practices is too long to write about here! If you didn't know it already, in the USA the traditional model of the small time, family farm is dead. It was impossible, economically, for the small scale farmer to compete cost-wise, with large scale, industrial agriculture. 

 To make farming profitable, large scale Ag relies on planting fields of crops that are genetically homogenous, often with genetic modifications that enable them to resist herbicides so that herbicides can be applied that will kill weeds but not the genetically modified plants. Machines and / or low cost labor are used in a relatively highly mechanized way, to tend and harvest the crops, which are then sold to commercial distributors. These distributors then ship from their hubs to far flung distribution centers, where they are then purchased by third party sellers. Even the guy who stocks your local roadside stand more than likely purchases some or all of his produce from a distributor. 

Our current system results in unprecedented efficiency and a steady supply of relatively safe food. However, it also has significant negative environmental impacts and relies heavily on petroleum products. Individual gardeners, acting collectively, can retain benefits of industrial agriculture (e.g. have access to strawberries even when they're out of season here), while reducing reliance on big agriculture, thereby reducing  environmental impacts and also increasing sustainability. 

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

The pesticides and herbicides used by industrial agriculture to prevent pests also get into the ecosystem and cause collateral damage to the environment. For instance, it's estimated that neonicontinoid pesticides are contributing to decimations of bee populations  worldwide. We are hearing that residue from the Monsanto herbicide "Roundup" is appearing throughout the food chain.  We can fight against this by purchasing organic and non-GMO foods at the store, but we also collectively can have a significant impact when we adopt environmentally friendly practices in a home garden. Individually, I am just one person, but if enough of us make small changes the impact can be significant. 

SUSTAINABILITY 

In recent decades, California farms have been some of the most productive cropland in the world, supplying USA consumers with bountiful vegetables and fruits, which are shipped to every corner of the United States. Unfortunately, this appears to be coming to an end. Why? Because irrigation has been used in an unsustainable way. Groundwater that has been used for irrigation has been depleted to a point where it soon it will be no longer available.  If you don't believe me, do a Google search for "drought in California." For purposes of this blog post, take my word for it! 

After the plants are produced on these large scale farms, harvesting and getting the produce to market relies on machinery and shipping, which requires fossil fuels.  And then there's the packaging. And sometimes there are abusive labor practices.  These practices all have negative impacts. 

Growing veggies in our home gardens enables us to bypass much of the negative, unsustainable side of industrial agriculture, even more so when we compost and reduce our reliance on chemical fertilizers.  We increase long-term sustainability when we grow food ourselves (or when we source locally and from small suppliers), when we use heirloom varieties of plants, when we implement more sustainable agricultural practices in our own sphere, when we increase plant genetic diversity, when we provide safe habitat for bees and butterflies, and when we reduce reliance on the fossil fuels used for shipping. 

COMMUNITY 

Another benefit is obvious: the opportunity to share. We build up communities and each other not just by sharing food with our neighbor or our local food bank, but by sharing knowledge and seeds and mentoring and visits with friends in our gardens.  Indeed, in this sense of building community, the garden itself can become a community activity, cultivating leaders as well as plants. To see a longer list of benefits of community gardening, check out this site:
http://www.gardendallas.org/benefits.htm

In summary, in addition to being cost-effective, healthy and tasty, growing a home vegetable garden reduces the environmental impact of industrial agriculture, contributes to a more sustainable footprint, and builds local communities!  So now, in these two blog posts,  I have given you six pretty good reasons to think about growing your own kitchen garden (on whatever scale you wish, small or large). These six reasons are: cost, health, taste, environment, sustainability, and community.  In my next blog post, I will talk about some things that are more personal to me which add enrichment to my own gardening experience.




Practical Benefits of Growing a Kitchen Garden

I have a small, suburban garden plot. Why? I plan to blog on the topic of gardening for a while. This is the first installment of several.



There are many reasons for even a city dweller to grow some of their own food. Which reasons come to mind, for you? (Leave a comment!) For me, the reasons are both practical and philosophical. Let's start with the most basic reasons:

COST 

Growing your own food can save on your grocery budget, of course. If you are like me, and have only a small space in which to garden, budget issues are a good reason to focus your growing efforts on expensive foods. The smaller your space, the more closely you will want to focus on quality as opposed to quantity.

In my own garden, some of the things that I grow that are more expensive to buy in the grocery store are things like tons of cherry tomatoes,  fresh basil, colorful peppers, and sugar snap peas. 

Some expensive foods, like asparagus,  can be incorporated into your landscaping, planted once, and then will produce year after year.  Besides asparagus, other examples of plants in this category are blueberries and raspberries. 

I recently paid $3.50 for a pint of blueberries in a standard grocery store. A mature blueberry plant will produce several gallons of blueberries per year and produce fruit for many years. Further, in my region, early, middle, and late varieties of blueberries can be mixed. If blueberry varieties are selected according to a staggered ripening season, a home gardener can have fresh, homegrown (and free!) blueberries all summer long. 

Perennial plants and trees, like blueberries or apples, are not free, so there is an initial investment in plants. That leads back to the issue of cost effectiveness.  

To some extent, out-of-pocket costs on the front end of establishing good plants can be reduced by making a few trade-offs. For instance, a blueberry plant that is one year old from the nursery will be substantially less expensive than a blueberry plant that is several years old. The trade-off is that purchase of a smaller plant will require one to wait a couple of years for a more bountiful harvest.  

There is also a cost involved in getting started in growing plants that last for just one season, such as tomatoes, squash, and peppers. A beginning gardener will need some how-to books, tools such as a spade and hoses, soil enrichment, and seeds or starter plants. Indeed, in some cases it may seem that investment in things like raised bed materials, soil, plants, etc., can make the investment less than cost-effective. 

For this reason, set a budget and stick to it! Perhaps in year one, only invest in a few items and equipment, focusing on a few simple, low maintenance items that you love. If you are successful, find you enjoy gardening, and want to do more, then gradually invest more in equipment as time goes by (raised beds, soaker hoses, composting bins, gardening tools, etc.). After the initial investment in getting started, future costs will be lower. As with many things, the more years you do it the more you learn and the more efficient and cost effective you become. 

Reducing out-of-pocket grocery cost is not the only reason to grow your own food, however.

HEALTH 

Many home gardeners who have small space focus their efforts on growing crops that are known to have high concentrations of pesticides and other chemicals when grown commercially.  If you do a Google search for "dirty dozen vegetables," you will find web pages that have lists of fruits and vegetables that have high amounts of pesticide and chemical residue in them. One example is strawberries. Another of these vegetables, believe it or not, is potatoes. This is because commercially grow potatoes are treated with chemicals that prevent fungus and also prevent them from sprouting.

The ability to grow organic, chemical free food is a significant reason to have a home garden. I admit, I was not raised doing organic gardening, and I am on a learning curve. This year, some bugs attacked my greens. I responded by spraying them with insecticidal soap. (The label says it is suitable for organic gardening.)  Although I did use chemicals, I knew exactly what I had sprayed on my plants and when, and so I knew when it was safe to pick and eat them. I do not have the same level of trust with regard to chemicals used on commercial crops! 

Even if a gardener does not use organic techniques in growing a garden, we know what chemicals have been used on the crops, and when they were used. The home gardener can use this knowledge to understand when the food is safe to eat without fear of pesticide residue! 

As more and more information is learned about long-term effects of pesticides on the body and the dependence of  industrial agriculture on pesticides, this has become more and more of a factor for me, personally. 

TASTE

A third reason to grow your own vegetables and fruits, is simply quality and taste.  Growers who are producing foods for shipping and mass marketing are limited in the types of plants they can produce. Namely, plants produced for mass marketing must be able to stand up to rough handling by laborers, trucking over long distances, and must have a long shelf life once they are in the store. Delicate varieties of fruits and vegetables cannot hold up to this type of handling. 

Peaches are one example of a type of fruit where the difference between a variety grown for shipping and a variety grown for home use is striking.  There's simply no comparison between peaches that will stand up to shipping and the luscious, fragrant fruit that drips nectar when you slice it and would bruise if you looked at it the wrong way. 

However, there are many more fruits and vegetables for which the difference between  produce grown for mass production and the varieties available to the home gardener is striking. Some veggies, in fact, are not even available commercially. In my garden, I grow a couple varieties of plants that are not readily available in standard grocery stores, such as small white Thai eggplant and thin purple Chinese eggplant. An example fruiting in my garden right now is Swiss chard, which does not ship well. Here is a photo of some Swiss chard I recently picked from my garden:



There are many more reasons to garden, but I will talk about those in another entry another day! In the meantime, happy gardening!