Going Wild

It is fortunate that recent research is showing that wildflowers can help us in our struggles against pests in our farms and gardens. Richard Pywell of England’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) is conducting a field study using strips of wildflowers in farm fields to cut down on or eliminate the use of pesticides. link  Pywell is using oxeye daisy, red clover, common knapweed and wild carrot in England and a similar study in Switzerland uses cornflowers, coriander, buckwheat, poppy and dill. Researchers in France found that the use of wildflowers helped the majority of farms cut pesticide use by 42 percent without harming productivity.

Wildflowers are the tough guys of the floral plant world, They have spent around 130 million years developing their well known abilities to attract beneficial insects such as lacewings, ladybugs, hover flies and parasitic wasps. They don’t need to be sprayed or ‘cultivated’ and ward off chewing insects, nematodes and fungus. They don’t need to be fenced since they are not palatable to deer and other grazing animals; some are extremely poisonous. It would be a happy thing if we could use them right in the middle of our farms, gardens and flower beds.

Now is the time to decide which wildflowers might help me so I have been studying the offerings of wildflower seed merchants. I think I will sprinkle strips of wildflower seed between my fall plantings of broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and cabbage. Then perhaps these flowers will be ready to help out with the spring and summer gardens in 2019. The question is which flowers.

Field of Lupines

Wild lupine self-seeded in my garden a few years ago and it is beautiful. Three feet tall and graceful, blooming in pink, purple and white, it took over the entire garden in about two years. Bees, butterflies and dragonflies hovered over the garden that looked like paradise for months. There was, however, no room for vegetables; and since it was poisonous and not a substitute for my edible plants, I spent two years pulling it up in great handfuls. I am currently embattled with Mexican Hat in my pastures. It is virulent. Deer only eat it when they are starving. It crowds out everything edible for my stock. It is beautiful, like Lupine, and wildflower merchants extol them both–and charge for their purchase. The point is to be careful in picking out what wildflowers to buy; it’s comparable, broadly, to the TV shows where a woman gets picked up in a bar by a cute guy who turns out to be a serial killer.

The wildflower merchants also tout lists of flowers for the Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest and Central U.S. With a few exceptions, the list is the same throughout the country–which speaks to the extreme hardihood of the wildflower. Wild sunflowers, Maxmillian sunflowers, bee balm, coreopsis, columbine, coneflowers, milkweed, goldenrod, heath asters, asters, Indian paintbrush, Indian blanket, coneflowers, cardinal flowers, black-eyed Susans, milkweed, Mexican hat, giant ironweed, vervain, geum, evening primrose, liatris and leadplant grow where they please and most of the country pleases them.

I consider many of these to be flower-garden plants: coreopsis, bee balm, columbine, coneflowers, wild sunflowers, black-eyed Susan, geum and the heath aster are all beautiful in a flower garden. All are sold in plant nurseries as flowering plants. I love all of them and will include them in my protective strips.

Heath asters

Bee balm is considered the best plant to put in with tomatoes. It only lasts one season in my garden but, in my imagination, should look good in the tomato patch. Coneflowers have not thrived for me; maybe they will like the rich soil in the vegetable garden. Wild sunflowers planted themselves in my vegetable garden this year and I left them; partly for the shade they provided and aphids love them. The sunflowers, however, show no damage when aphids swarm on them. They do have huge stalks that are very hard to remove.The heath aster has seeded itself with me and choked out even Maxmillian sunflowers. It is covered in bees every fall. Covered with bees. I love it.

I think we are experimenters. Insect-killing chemicals kill indiscriminately. Even the organic products I use are expensive and have to be applied at least every other day in the height of the season. We need alternatives. Wildflowers. It might work.

Chloris — Roman goddess of flowers

Tomatoes: Risk and Reward

When the Spanish Conquistadors found the Aztecs cultivating tomatoes in the city of Tenochitlan (now Mexico City), they did not see the round red ones we buy today in our supermarkets. Tomatoes had grown wild and been enjoyed in the Americas for a thousand years: yellow, orange, pink, purple, green, black, white, mottled, striped and of every shape and size you might imagine.

Many of these colorful and unusual tomatoes were entered in a tasting contest at my local Farmer’s Market last month and were truly delicious. But I have not had great results from my attempts to grow ‘heirloom’ tomatoes. My 2017 tomato crop was really dismal so I opted for hybrids this year: tried and true red slicers, Romas and cherry tomatoes. 

Taking the excellent advice of a fine tomato grower and friend, I planted three plants in mid March. The theory is that, IF there is not a late frost, my tomato crop would be well on its way before the hot weather hit and slowed production. There was a hard frost a week later. I put in three more plants but a hard frost the first week of April killed those as well. Gambling. Gambling with weather. A sucker’s game. Nothing looks worse than a tomato plant killed by frost, blackened leaves, hanging like a rag bag. Sad. Nevertheless, I put in my remaining six plants the second week of April and have had a good year.

Tomatoes have always been associated with crazy. Embraced early in Southern Europe tomatoes were called a ‘love apple’ in France where they were imagined to be an aphrodisiac. The Italians were an exception to this ‘crazy’ and, in the 16th century, they quickly added tomatoes to the oil, garlic and herb toppings they used on their flatbread–creating an early form of what we call pizza.

Northern Europeans believed the tomato to be poisonous for years. This is not really entirely crazy since all parts of the tomato plant, with the exception of the ripe fruit, is poisonous. The tomato evolved from the prehistoric plant Nightshade millions of years ago in South America. The nightshades are quite a family; including the potato, eggplant, tobacco and chili peppers. One has to admire the early humans who were hungry enough to sort out which parts of which plants were ‘safe.’ Attempts to make tea from tomato leaves led to some reports of death and the toxins tomatine and atropine appear in small quantities in unripe tomato fruit. I may rethink my affection for fried green tomatoes.

Weirdness seems to follow the tomato. It was classified as a fruit until late in the 19th century to avoid taxation, which makes one think the tomato lobby must have had considerable power. In a bizarre little twist, the Supreme Court stepped in and declared the tomato a vegetable. And what could be weirder than the transformation of a soft, flavorful food into one that that is currently picked when it’s almost green, then boxed and transported thousands of miles, then placed into an ethylene air bath to turn it red for sale in our supermarkets.

Our love affair with tomatoes has not been slowed by the its questionable quality in our marketplaces. It is the state vegetable of New Jersey and Arkansas, the state fruit of Ohio. I don’t think I ever ate a salad as a child that did not contain tomatoes. I have started tomato seedlings for a fall planting this year. This is an act of love since the chances of producing a tomato before frost are marginal. But my tomato gardening friends insist the pleasure of a home grown tomato in November is worth the risk of a few seeds. And I think I will gamble next spring and grow a green striped tomato. Risk. Reward.

Still Life with Tomatoes, 1883 (oil on canvas) by Gauguin, Paul



Bee Love: 9,000 Years and Counting

I put up over two gallons of honey last week. Much of it was purchased by friends and I set aside some for holiday gifts. But a few jars are for me to enjoy. Harvesting and eating honey is a way for me to connect with my Neolithic farming ancestors — who are charged by historians with the exploitation of bees –just as we are today. The ancient hollow log pictured above shows an example of the comb treasured by Stone Age raiders of hives 8500 years ago in France. link

I wonder if my Stone Age counterpart got honey all over the place as I did when I extracted and bottled my honey last week. I did not use the big circular extractor in my garage, but just scraped off the wax caps on the hive frames and let the honey drain all night Then I strained it through a fairly large mesh to preserve all the precious pollen and nutrients. The friend who gave me the extractor, when he divested himself of his bees and bee equipment, also gave me a box of eight ounce plastic squeeze bottles. I used these bottles only after I ran out of my supply of pretty decorative glass bottles. What would my Stone Age counterpart have thought about these little plastic bottles, considered mundane and practical by me; perhaps wondrous by her. And since much of the honey for sale now has been heated and ultra filtered; I wonder how often my ancestors heated the honey to extract if faster and more thoroughly; I wonder if they filtered it at all.

The grocery store shelves are now filled with jars of honey to which sugar and water have often been added to increase profits. Mass produced honey has been basically killed by the ‘pasteurization’ process; and, should any remaining nutrients survive, they are filtered out by high-tech machines. We are told that this ultra processing makes the honey smoother and more transparent. link

Vaughn Bryant, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, has spent decades analyzing commercial honey; he peers through his microscope at a sample, looking for pollen or other signs of life and says, “Nothing!” A modern day crusader, he has led opposition to the sale of dead honey in ‘big box’ stores; and, he has revealed honey contaminated by heavy metals and other toxins dumped in the United States by China, India and other countries. Casting a wide net, Dr. Bryant has extensively researched ancient honey discovered by archaeologists and geologists who have found honey in their research sites.

We have learned that honey doesn’t spoil because of its acidic and antibacterial content. Three-thousand year old honey found in an Egyptian tomb was found to be edible. link  Honey was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Recognizable honey stains, 5500 years old, were found in ceramic vessels in ancient Georgia. The earliest apiary with more than 100 hives was found in Israel, dating to the 9th century B.C.E.– contemporaneous to King Solomon.

So why do we kill it? Honey has been beloved by humans for thousands of years and used to honor the dead, satisfy our love of sweets; and importantly, to improve our health. link

The health benefits of raw honey are well known. Unheated honey, filtered only enough to remove wax and dead bees has dozens of amino acids and is loaded with minerals and vitamins. It also contains almost 30 kinds of bioactive plant compounds that act as antioxidants. All of which contribute to honey’s reputation for reducing inflammation, lowering the risk of heart disease, fighting cancer, helping to control blood sugar by improving liver function, improving vascular function, assisting with weight management, suppressing coughs, boosting immunity, healing wounds and helping to lower cholesterol. link.

Why DO we kill it.

Chicken Keepers

It’s fun to dream about having a flock of chickens that produce the beautiful array of eggs pictured above. And not impossible by any means. I’ve had hours of fun reading Henderson’s Handy Dandy Chicken Chart. Sixty or so chicken breeds are listed; for example, Marans, bred long ago in France, produce the chocolate colored eggs; Ameraucanas, bred in South America, produce the green and blue eggs. Generally the more exotic the egg color the fewer eggs you will get each week. For production, the venerable white Leghorns — kept by the ancient Romans — can lay up to 300 white eggs a year.

But a keeper of chickens has so many factors to consider. Do you want friendly chickens? Free range chickens? Exotic feathers? The combinations are dizzying since chickens are thought to have been domesticated 10,000 years ago and have been bred worldwide for any trait you might want to imagine, for eating, for fighting, for display and; of course, for eggs.

But the domestic history just scratches the surface. I never tire of reminding my readers that thirty years ago dinosaur fossils found in China revealed feathers; and confirmed the dinosaur/bird link. Millions of year ago the Tyrannosauridae genetic line produced T-Rex whose living genetic relative is our beloved modern chicken.

I have enjoyed for the past three years a pleasant flock of seven hens and one rooster who are a mix of Ameraucanas (green eggs), Marans (brown eggs) and Ameraucana/Maran crosses (olive eggs). And three years is when egg production declines sharply and also when older free-range hens tend to abandon their nesting boxes and lay eggs in hidden caches.

I have a small property and my little barn only comfortably houses about 10 chickens. I have no space to keep the older birds and also add new layers. This week I handed off five of my older hens to a friend who had lost most of her flock to a fox. Another friend supplied me with four six-month old chicks.

One of my new chicks died in the terrible heat wave that hit this week. The other three are thriving and all are expected to lay a modest four eggs a week beginning in January 2019. I am thrilled that one of the birds is a Speckled Sussex. The Sussex are touted by chicken sellers as the bird with ‘everything.’ Her antecedents are said to have been living in England when the Romans invaded in 43 BC. The modern Sussex are family birds– friendly, easy-going and intelligent. My little Sussex seems to the the leader of the three new girls. They are all sticking to the barn and the fenced coop right now, partly because of the heat and partly because a family of hawks live nearby in a large Oak and at least eight of them are on patrol almost all day.

When my rooster, the Calico Kid, integrates the new chicks into his coterie, he will protect them from the hawks by spreading his large wings as cover. The hawks are respectful of his four-inch spurs. And the hawks fear my guardian dogs as do a long list of other chicken enemies.

I also have a regal Jersey Giant chick who will grow to about 10 pounds, way too big for a hawk to lift off the ground. Bred in New Jersey late in the 19th century, these giants are supposed to be very sociable, especially friendly to children. You can see that the young farmer who supplied my new chicks likes companionable breeds. The Jersey Giants were on a critically endangered list in 2001 but now have been moved to a watch list. I always like to try and preserve these historic breeds.

And I have a new Ameraucana or Easter Egg Layer. I kept two adult Ameraucanas but am getting no eggs right now–none that I can find anyway. I love, love, love green and blue eggs and am hoping my new chick will supply them for me. She is a beautiful reddish brown. Bred in Chile, these chickens have a puff of feathers around their heads that reveal the wide standards of what is beautiful in the chicken world.

All over the planet, dreams of productivity and beauty inspire chicken keepers. Always, always reality bites hard. Scorching weather, icy winter storms, and predators. Predators by the score, foxes, hawks, raccoons–everyone likes chicken apparently.

When the weather breaks, I will add a few more hens so that my family and friends and I have plenty of eggs. And I will have the pleasure of living with these marvelous, interesting creatures. I also like knowing they have a wild past, a past where they were fearsome indeed. I love the illustration of bird ancestry below. This is not the first time I have published it and probably not the last. It reminds us that the gentle, pretty, useful creatures we keep have either dramatically evolved or dramatically devolved. I’m not sure which.


Food Gardening

Food Gardening is hard. Much harder than flower gardening. I love flower gardening. My Northern garden was beautiful. It was placed on tours, featured in the Chicago Tribune and was an ongoing source of pleasure; it was a pleasure garden. I would put in a plant and, if it died, I would replace it. I just tried one thing after another until it pleased; and I am now enjoying the same technique in my Southern garden. Try something and if it does not work, try something else. I have been enjoying a talk by Leonard Bernstein who describes the creation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony link, The great musician left pages and pages of notes and drafts of this symphony–he made 14 attempts to create the perfect beginning to the second movement following the opening that featured the famous FATE chords. Bernstein tells us that Beethoven tried one thing after another to make “something we can trust, something that will never let us down.”

Of course, I do not claim any great artistry in making a garden. The plants are the artists. Flowers and other ornamental plants are fun to play with; they will show you the way. Even a new pleasure garden can be trusted to bring peace and well being. And, in my experience, a mature pleasure garden will never let you down. A food garden, on the other hand, will do no such thing. It is more like stepping into a boxing ring or into a contest in Rome’s Colosseum.

First, food is powerful draw.

from Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

While flowers have certain issues with pests, a food garden can mean the difference in living and dying to my opponents: rabbits, squirrels, birds, deer, raccoons, a myriad of bugs, spiders and even fungus. Peace is not an option for them.

Second, there are no sturdy native plants to form the cornerstone of a food garden. Eating plants native to Central Texas would make a very sorry table. So going into this battle, one is in an alliance with the delicate and the exotic; an alliance with plants that would not survive three minutes without the gardener’s care. For example, cabbage, considered a plain, everyday food, is an exotic plant. It needs one’s best soil and is in constant peril of being devoured by any pest you want to name. Onions need very rich soil. Asparagus. Tomatoes. All of them really. And water. Lots of water.

Finally, there is timing. I should have started my spring seedlings: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach and lettuce this past January. Busy with the holidays, I was late and in May we had a crushing heat wave. I ended the spring garden season, having enjoyed one cabbage, two cauliflower and no broccoli. But I was awash in spinach and lettuce for months. Carrots did well this year; all the beets died. I did not get a single peach; the grapevines were loaded. Leeks, tomatoes and melons were delicious. I never know what will work out. Each success is like a little miracle.

I have been late starting my seedlings for the fall garden. Last weekend, I set up trays of little pots seeded with tomatoes, brussel sprouts and broccoli. I’ll get around to cabbage and cauliflower next week. With lots of overlap, if I’m lucky, I will have cauliflower in October, broccoli in November, cabbage in December, brussel sprouts in January–and tomatoes if and when it pleases them.

I have only been food gardening for about five years so perhaps I’ll get more predictable results with practice. And perhaps the uncertainty about the success of the little seeds sitting on my outdoor sink right now is not all bad. It is certainly a miracle for a tiny seed to turn into a fat cabbage for my winter dinner.


Supermoon Smile

The Moon at Perigee looks a lot bigger than the Moon at Apogee–because the orbit of the Moon around Earth is not perfectly round. Occasionally the Moon swings closer to us and we see it in what appears to be a gigantic form. Imagine you were 30% bigger or imagine a man normally six feet tall, looming upon you eight feet tall.

On Friday, two days from now, the Moon will be in Perigee; or, it will be, according to the new vernacular, a Supermoon. It would look the same the 30% bigger, just like the full moon, IF we could see it. But the Moon will be “new”– and entirely dark. And it will not rise at night. It will rise with the Sun about six in the morning and set at nine in the evening.

The New Moon has probably always been a symbol death and then rebirth, as the Crescent Moon gradually increases night after night. Paintings and illustrations abound of the beautiful and very feminine Virgin Mary with the Crescent Moon.

And long before Christianity swept through the world, the ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese; and, probably a dozen other cultures described the Moon as a ‘feminine” force. Not feminine, meaning gender, but feminine, meaning having intuition, empathy and patience.

Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt is often paired with the crescent moon, as is the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana. I am sure intuition, empathy and patience help one to hunt successfully, but it is interesting that such a masculine modern pastime was viewed so differently in the ancient world.

I have always loved the Cheshire Cat appearing first as a crescent moon and then materializing into the only creature in Alice in Wonderland who really listens to Alice. Although edgy and sarcastic, he becomes a kind of care taker, acting as her guide and advisor.

Illustration in the Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

And moon gardeners, another kind of care taker, advise us to plant above-ground crops, put down sod and graft trees during the new moon and the first quarter that follows it.

Whether the Moon is considered in a deeply religious context or simply an object of intellectual or practical value, it is always a positive. I have said before and repeat, that I love looking at the Moon that has appeared in almost exactly its present form to ancient and prehistoric humans. It links us to this past chain of humanity.

The New Moon has long been considered a symbol of a clean slate and an invitation to correct mistakes. On Saturday night, July 14, the first phase of the giant Waxing Crescent can be seen in the western sky just after the sun sets. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to see the sky smile down upon us.

Painting by 19th Century artist Arthur John Black

Mother Africa Comes to Call

The Sahara occupies most of North Africa

A huge plume of dust rose up out of the Sahara Desert last week and traveled 5000 miles, across the Atlantic, up through parts of Mexico and the American South. The dust hit the Texas Gulf Coast and spread throughout the State. The red African dust has been hanging over my little farm this past week. While the current dusty red atmosphere is new to me, violent wind storms in the Sahara are common. Every year 182 million tons of dust are blown into the upper atmosphere and driven by the trade winds to the Americas. 182 million tons.

The dust, called mineral dust, is loaded with nutrients: primarily iron and phosphorus. When this airborne fertilizer falls into the ocean, it creates a problem endemic to all fertilizers: rampant growth of the wrong thing. A “red tide” of algae growth poisons huge numbers of fish and other marine life. Scientists also believe the microbes in the dust may be poisoning coral contributing to death of coral reefs.

Naturally humans worry about the presence of foreign red dust. It may bring fungus, bacteria and harmful chemical residues. It certainly causes sinus and respiratory issues. And red dust, well, it makes things a dirty, dusty red. Because of the iron.

But it turns out that all these complaints about the red mineral dust do not weigh very heavily since, on the other side of the scale, is its contribution to the generation of oxygen.

Every breath we take is a gift from plants. Rain forests are well known to be the ‘lungs’ of the Earth, burning carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. The African mineral dust often settles on the Amazon rain forest that gratefully soaks up the iron, phosphorus and other nutrients provided by Mother Africa. The Saharan dust is largely responsible for the fertility of the rain forests.

This mineral dust also feeds the world’s oceans. Tiny ocean plants called Phytoplankton use photosynthesis  to live, a process that uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. The little plants, most of which are invisible to the naked eye, create about half of the oxygen we breathe. Nutrients like the iron and phosphorus in the African mineral dust are in short supply in marine ecosystems. Without the fertilizer from the Sahara, the health of phytoplankton and the oceans would decline significantly. link

I was struggling with my own iron issues when the story of the red mineral dust cloud appeared in the news. I have a persimmon tree that cannot seem to absorb iron so its leaves are a creepy pale green color. I’m treating the problem with a special easy- to- absorb iron called chelated. I hope it works since, if the tree cannot get iron it will die. The iron allows access to crucial enzymes and pigments and is necessary for the tree’s energy production. Which translates into no persimmon sherbet for me. I like the idea that my tree shares a need with the microscopic phytoplankton plants in the ocean.

Of course the necessity of phosphorus, delivered by the Saharan dust, is well known. It is in every bag of fertilizer we buy. It drives the conversion of key biochemical reactions in plants and is a vital part of DNA, our memory unit and the memory unit of plants as well. Phosphorus is a big player in the capture and conversion of the sun’s energy: our old friend, photosynthesis.

So here we have a potential villain. It sweeps across the world killing fish and coral. It makes us sick and dirties our air. But it does the work of a hero by feeding the phytoplankton and the rain forest so we have plenty of oxygen. The red African dust is quite the character. Not one on a human scale as seen on the the stage or a movie screen, but one that comes out of a desert that covers about three and a half million square miles, that measures in tons and travels thousands of miles. It engages with the most crucial building blocks of nature. The red dust exists on a truly grand scale, the scale of a planet.








Pigweed v. Humans

Humans dream up ways to kill unwanted plants. Plants, who are great chemists, dream up ways to resist the onslaught. For example the herbicide, glyphosate (Round-up), kills by targeting a key protein in plants. Most plants have two copies of the gene that makes this protein. Glyphosate is no longer effective against pigweed because the plant has evolved five to 160 copies of this key protein. It fights back with its own genetic modifications.

Carelessweed is another name for pigweed and is the name my grandmother used. I like the old fashioned name a lot since the arrogant weed could care less what humans want. A dozen pigweeds surrounded each of my six tomato plants while I was away on vacation. I just keep pulling pigweed up and it always, always reappears. It is my enemy.

Pigweed swamping soybeans

One pigweed plant can produce half a million seeds, according to a June 2018 article in Scientific American. Each seed is loaded with modern “genetic machinery” to wage and win its war with humans. Some large scale farms have been forced to hire laborers to handpick or blowtorch the weeds. link

Other experts have found that, in good growing conditions a pigweed plant can produce not just half a million seeds, but  1.5 million seeds. And pigweed needs only about two weeks to produce all this seed after flowering. link

Pigweed is not alone in its resistance to chemicals. Other weeds have joined the game. For example, horseweed, common ragweed, giant ragweed, annual ryegrass and johnsongrass are all resistant to glyphosate. Barnyardgrass is resistant to the herbicides propanil, quinclorac and clomazone. Cocklebur and pigweed are resistant to the herbicides Scepter and Classic. Ryegrass is resistant to Hoelon and Osprey. Johnsongrass is resistant to Select and Fusilade. link

I included the names of the herbicides above since you might want to check the labels on product you use to kill weeds in your lawn or garden. They may not work anymore. Of course, the big problem is with big farms–massive fields of soybeans and corn. Agribusiness genetically modifies corn and soybeans so that they are not killed by herbicides. The plan was for the herbicides to kill all plants in a field other than the genetically modified corn or soybeans. It is entertaining to me that weedy plants are developing their own genetic modifications to resist the poisons. Poor Big Ag farmers, they have to keep using more and more of old herbicides and are always on the lookout for “new” and usually more toxic herbicides so they can stay ahead of the plants.

The costs are high– the money expended, the health of the soil, the health of the farmers spraying the chemicals, the health of consumers. We pay the costs yet we may not win the war. There is a “considerable chance,” according Science magazine that “the evolution of pest resistance will outpace human innovation.” Weeding the old-fashioned ways may be the solution in the end.

Amazingly, the leaves, stems and seeds of pigweed are edible and highly nutritious! The leaves can be cooked like spinach or other greens. link I am not enthusiastic about eating it. Just as i am not inclined, unless very hungry indeed, to eat snakes or bugs. Even if they are wildly nutritious. I just don’t like the idea of eating my enemies.

Front Porch Gardening (republished from 6/7/17)

Ruth Stout

To have a garden that is less work. Great idea. The most famous ‘no work’ gardener, and a controversial one, is Ruth Stout. cite  Another garden writer, Steve Solomon offers his own controversial advice–often in opposition to the venerable Ms. Stout. cite

Gardening is always controversial, it’s the natural state of it. Gardeners are imagined by non-gardeners to be serene, benevolent souls; in fact, the desperate fight with insects, the vagaries of maintaining good soil, the ever-losing battle with the weather create a productive but opinionated person.

Ask 10 gardeners a question: get 15 answers. So all beloved garden writers are surrounded by disagreement, and I think they love it. Ruth Stout, born in 1884 is said to have been a women’s rights activist and smashed saloons with Carry Nation in Prohibition-era Kansas.  She was an advocate of working au natural  in her Connecticut garden that produced prodigiously. She was active in her garden until her death at age 96.

Stout in her garden (with clothes on)

Stout is most famous for what she called ‘her method’ of gardening–basically laying down 8 inches of hay throughout the garden. Her ploughman failed to show up one year and she began a process of no-till planting with the hay application and describes her success eloquently, if somewhat stridently, in her books. Her books are fun; for example How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. In a magazine interview she said she did not “plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.” Fun, right? link

Solomon in his garden

Many gardeners find the heavy mulch attracts slugs and other insects along with mice. Steve Soloman agrees. He gardened in the Pacific Northwest and was a fan of mulching with a layer of very fine soil. I wrote about Chinese gardeners using this technique earlier this year. link My soil is far too heavy to create the powdery texture that succeeds as a mulch. Gardeners in the South complain that this kind of mulch does not stand up to 100 degree days.

Solomon’s bare soil was hoed constantly and very lightly tilled. His garden produced very large quantities of food for his family. Part of the reason for his success was that he used only the highest quality seed. Solomon, who founded the Territorial Seed Company, set the standard for quality seeds in this country. In his books, he is adamant that manure, mulching and composting are not enough to create a garden with food that contains good nutrition at harvest. He writes that poor soil, stripped in his climate of nutrients by heavy rains, creates poor food for animals, the manure and compost are then poor and the food produced poor in nutrients. To avoid this outcome he liberally used a good organic fertilizer, lime, cottonseed meal, kelp, and rock phosphate or bone meal.

Some of Solomon’s most difficult advice to gardeners is that some ground in the garden should be fallow once every three years. One year of planting, the next year in cover crops and the third year entirely at rest. I thought this would be hard, but have found it easy to just avoid planting certain areas every year or so. I lay down a really thick layer of hay on my fallow ground, since my prairie grasses are very enthusiastic and their roots go down 10 feet or so. There is no way I could just till them up–and I don’t till anyway. In this rainy year the grasses stay ahead of me on the fallow ground and the non-fallow ground. It seems I am laying down more hay every time I go out. I follow Stout’s mulching method for most of the year. It doesn’t create any additional insect problems for me and keeps the ground cool through the summer. Mulching with hay is not no work for me; but it works well for my plants. In the spring, I leave the soil bare for a while to let the sun warm it. I don’t really mind hoeing during that time.

If you are going to garden well, you need about 15 minutes every single day. Then you can sip a cool drink and ‘front porch garden’ the rest of the day. Some years, it is easier to go out daily. If those 15 minutes stack up then, it’s ‘work’. No way around it.




Lungs of the Earth (republished from 5/31/17)

Plantswoman is enjoying some summer traveling and will return with new post on June 27th.

Pollen, the sticky stuff of life for flowers, grasses, bees and butterflies offers us a window into the past of the Sahara Desert. Scientists have discovered pollen that is thousands of years old. It reveals that the Sahara was once a paradise full of trees. Why this land of tropical trees, lush vegetation and many, many lakes turned to desert is being studied. link Disagreement rages. For example, Gavin Schmidt of NASA believes that 8000 years ago the tilt of the Earth changed from 24.1 degrees to 23.5 degrees. Dr. David Wright believes humans were a factor and that grazing and agriculture destroyed the lush green world and led to desertification. link

Deserts are beautiful, they just don’t help us breathe. Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. And they do more than just provide the oxygen. Like any good set of lungs, trees filter pollutants and clean the air for us. A new study estimates that the Earth has three trillion trees. These trees are represented in the graphic to the left in the dark green bands. Another study estimates that 400 billion mature leafy trees exist and these big trees produce enough clean oxygen “… for the lifetime of ten people each season! There are 400 billion trees, 6.7 billion people on Earth — every person has 60 trees.” link

I am pretty happy having 60 trees making oxygen for me. I don’t think this is a question of a crisis so much as an issue of caretaking. I thought I had lost a chicken but she appeared several days ago with baby chicks. This is a creature not generally admired for intellect, but she understands caretaking. There are 5 or more hawks circling during each day; she keeps her babies near the crawlspace of the porch or near a deep opening beneath a rose bush. She covers them with her wings when the dogs or other chickens threaten. I have no idea where she takes them at night. It poured rain two nights ago, the sky was alight for hours with lightening with attendant thunder. The chicken was out the next morning taking care of her dry, healthy babies scratching for bugs.

How do we take care of our trees and forests? I have planted at least dozen trees and take great care of the 40 or so mature trees on my property. I never buy anything made with exotic wood; I have given up live Christmas trees.  I gripe here often about clear cutting forests. Will this save my 60 trees? Will that preserve my share of clean oxygen? I have no idea.

WIRED magazine recently ran an article entitled “All the Trees Will Die, and Then So Will You” that described, among other things, the terrible insect and disease damage presently ravaging trees. link We will soon be seeing the summer wildfires raging across thousands of acres of forests.

Caretaking of forests has separated successful countries from the unsuccessful. link Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed  describes the Japanese campaign to preserve their forests initiated 300 years ago. Most of this small island full of people remains forested. Diamond contrasts the success of Japan with Haiti and North Korea where deforestation has led to land erosion, poverty and famine. He also relates the well-worn tale of Easter Island, where the inhabitants lived prosperous lives; so prosperous that they were able to carve statues 13 feet high weighing 14 tons. They cut every tree. The deforestation of the island led to decline, led to a few suvivors living a feral existence in caves eating rats and mice and possibly engaging in cannibalism.

In the end maybe we should wonder who is taking care of who. I believe trees are sentient being and perhaps from their point of view we are their lungs and not the other way around. We are certainly providing carbon dioxide in record levels with our bodies, our cars, our industry. I like to imagine trees taking care of themselves. I imagine they will survive the recent human and insect plagues. They have been on Earth for 370 million years and have probably survived worse.