Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Urban Gardening by Necessity

A friend forwarded to me a story on the rise of urban permaculture in Cuba. An Aussie permaculture team visited there during the horrible economic crash and helped get people in Havana started on sustainable agriculture. It's resulted in quite the cooperative culture change.

Going through a minor famine and economic readjustment is not required to start working with permaculture, but it's certainly reassuring, and inspiring, to see that urban gardening can actually substantially feed an urban population. There's a tremendous amount that we could do here in Silicon Valley, given the terrific climate and opportunities here.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Garden Desktop: Cilantro

We have an incredible amount of volunteer cilantro on a mound of soil in the back garden. Mike levelled the site where the greenhouse is supposed to go, scraping the topsoil off carefully to re-use in the greenhouse beds after we move it. That particular chunk of topsoil is where I'd let a huge cilantro go to seed. I saved a lot of the seeds to plant this spring, but it hardly seems necessary at this point! This one is 1024 x 768; larger image available on request, just leave a comment.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Unsung Heroes and Open Source Seeds

A recent scholarly paper illustrates strong parallels between open source software and access to heirloom seeds. Out on the agricultural frontier, links between farmers and geeks are being forged, as farmers tap into the global Internet and discover the need to apply Open Source principles to seeds.

The fight against patented seed varieties goes back many years. The late Professor Elwyn Meader of the University of New Hampshire was a noted opponent to plant patenting, arguing that if even one dollar of taxpayer money went into developing a plant variety, it must be made available to the public. A wonderful biography and tribute to Prof Meader was recently published by Fedco Seeds, and that is where I learned of the existence of this unsung hero. The photo you see here is from a USDA report on strawberry development, and links to the brief biography of Prof Meader included in the report.

Meader's efforts in plant breeding and propagation spanned the 1930's into modern times, and searching heirloom seed catalogs one finds him credited with dozens of varieties. If you garden with heirloom varietals, especially in cooler climates, odds are that you are growing something he developed. Golden Midget watermelon? Elwyn Meader. Royalty Purple Pod bean? Elwyn Meader. Sweet Chocolate bell pepper, and Applegreen eggplant? Elwyn Meader. Mid-season Bush Cherries? You guessed it. Meader Highbush Blueberry? Meader Persimmon (self-pollinating)? The list goes on and on. Meader's work is particuarly appreciated in the lower USDA zones, and in climates like the UK, where standard varieties often fail to set fruit or produce well, due to lower temperatures.

Now fast-forward back to seeds and open source. An article on so-called SuperOrganics illustrates the new route to improving plants without burdening them with patents or creating potentially harmful transgenic varieties. Merely map the genome of the plant, and use that knowledge to pick and choose among traits in several varieties of the plant. Once you know what you're breeding for, and can screen the offspring, the process of developing a variety with the desired traits can be shortened for patient years to impatient months. And, in the process, the genome has the potential to become protected by GPL-style licensing.

One pioneer in this process, Richard Jefferson, developed a useful marker gene as a grad student and protected it with licensing. Researchers and farmers can use it freely, yet the big agribiz companies like Monsanto have to pay to license it-- and with those revenues, Jefferson set up CAMBIA, "an international, independent non-profit research institute pioneering Open Source Biology and Informatics to support Patent Transparency." Does that rock, or what?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Garden Desktop: Spring Lettuce

This week's garden desktop is young Batavian Nevada lettuce growing in one of our raised garden beds. This is 3rd generation seed, saved from the original Renee's Seeds mixed lettuces pack I started in 2003. A couple of volunteers came up in the same pot as the grapevine we moved to our new place, so I planted them along with the grapevine. They thrived all summer in the shade under the vine leaves, and then bolted in the late summer heat.

I'm looking forward to seeing the results of new Renee's Seeds 'cut and come again' mesclun mix that I just sowed this past weekend. I'll have to tuck away a late sowing to let it go to seed, and keep saving!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Let the Games Begin! Seed-Starting Mania

I have had a 3x5 card on my desk for over 2 weeks, with everything on it crossed off except 'START SEEDS'. Argh! Last night, finally, I got my game on and started spring seedlings. I admit that one of the complications was that I had to rearrange the porch to actually create useable space for a folding table near the outlet, so that I could use my new seed-starting mats. But still.

I'm still not sure how many tomato plants I can realistically put into my rearranged garden beds. I also, of course, want room for lots of peppers and an eggplant or two. Things like beans can vine up into the sun, or in the case of yellow bush beans, fit into a small sunny row at the edge of a bed. It's the towering redwood kudzu of indeterminate tomato plants that requires the complicated space planning. There will *not* be a yellow pear tomato this year. Last year, despite frequent prunebacks, it turned into a tomato TREE, going not only up onto the neighbors' carport roof but trying to grow into their storage shed through the vents. Yargh. We're going to put something a bit tamer in that spot this year, yes. But let's cut to the chase: What did I start?

  • Early Girl, Better Boy, Stupice, Moskvich, Gregori's Altai
  • Amish Paste, Yellow Plum, Black Plum, Principe Borghese
  • Noir de Crimee, Black Cherry, Santa Clara Canner, Aunt Ruby's German Green
  • Hawaiian Pineapple, Pineapple, Tigerella, Green Zebra
  • Ping Tung Long (eggplant), Lil Spooky (eggplant), Toma Verde (tomatillo)
  • Super Shepherd Frying, Hungarian Paprika, Hungarian Yellow Wax, Jimmy Nardello (all peppers)

I haven't even planted one-of-each of all the varieties of tomatoes I acquired this year. Even in the 1 - 2 dozen seeds per packet homegrown / small-supplier form, I suspect I will just plain not have to buy tomatoes ever again. Of course, I certainly *will*, because there's bound to be something I really want to try. But I digress. This set of seedlings has onesy-twosey of a couple of things, but is mostly in groups of 3 or 4. I figure one for me, one to make sure there's one for me, and I never seem to have a problem finding people who want good tomato seedlings. In fact, instead of proferring them to all and sundry, I might just give a few to my bestest buddies and trot the rest of them down to the local flea market this year. I have things you won't find at the local hardware store, and if I can get a buck or two each for some seedlings in recycled 4-inch pots, I won't feel quite so bad about how much I spent on tomato seeds this year.

Just as the best way to feel bad on a dive vacation is to divide the cost of the trip by the number of useable photos you got (oooh, BAD move!), I am going to not think about all I've spent on seeds, perlite, garden tools, raised beds, the greenhouse, etc, because otherwise I will feel absolutely dreadful. Besides, I'm psychologically incapable of spending that same amount on a CSA subscription for a box full of mostly kale, which I don't really eat. I'd just blow it on retirement planning or repainting the house or something. And that's no fun, right? Right! It's not just a hobby, it's a sacred calling. So there.

Besides, I'll be starting a ton of Ace, Better Boy, and other rugged, garden-novice-compatible tomato seedlings for the new Sunnyvale Community Garden later on, so I'd better start my stuff while I can. And my 3x5 card? It's still there, with "START SEEDS" crossed off, but next to it written "START ROOTS". I'm really, really behind on getting carrots, beets, radishes, and chard into the new beds...