Friday, December 18, 2009

The Similarities of Farming and Health care

Fascinating! The New Yorker ran an article comparing the proposed health care reforms to agriculture, and includes the history of US agriculture. Finally, the whole "agricultural extension agent" thing makes sense!

A big thanks to the Scientist Gardener for drawing my attention to this!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Overpasses and Underpasses for Wildlife

Here is a photo gallery of overpasses and underpasses made for or adapted for use by animals. Hold the mouse cursor over an image to read about the specific project. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thoughts on Invasives

This article was a good read, even though it strikes me as somewhat contrary-for-the-sake-of-garnering-attention. The best part is actually the discussion following the article. The following was posted by "Andy" on the 8th.

"Eventually newly evolved or introduced pathogens, etc. will catch up with the invasives and then their lack of coevolution with their new biotic and physical environment will bring them down.

"Look at the European honey bee as an example. Introduced to N. America about 600 years ago. By the 1800's they were common throughout N. America (read Irving Washington's account of Oklahoma and Texas for example). They likely had pushed out many (extinct or reduced greatly in population and range) if not most of N. America's native pollinators and may have caused the extinction of the Carolina Parkakeet through tree hole competition."

"I think something that needs to be looked at in depth is the reintroduction of native plants and animals pushed out by invasive species, once that invasive is brought into control through evolution of pathogens, competitors, etc. This has the potential to greatly reduce the initial shock of native species loss following non-native species introductions. This will require the maintenance of native reserve areas where invasives are removed; for long periods (century or more). Which is about all most invasive species control programs can actually accomplish. "

This is the same conclusion that logic has led me to.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Blog to Visit

Just a quick plug before our dinner guests arrive. . .

If you like our blog here, you should check out Ecosystem Gardening, too. Her blog covers similar topics, but is a hell of a lot less haphazard than this one!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

With Great Power. . .

I was blown away when I read the following:

"When we buy and sell land we are really buying and selling certain rights of use to the land, rather than the land itself. And rights are always balanced by responsibilities. Therefore, having the right to a certain piece of land should always come with specific responsibilities, such as social, economic, and environmental stewardship. When we begin to understand this, we will begin to structure our economy and our laws differently."

Read the full article here.

The idea of owning land and yet not having carte blanche to change it is perplexing to many landowners. I first learned about this issue years ago when a family member told me about his wetland property, which he was not permitted to develop. Another family member once griped to me that he wasn't permitted to shoot wildlife with impunity when it crossed the borders of his little kingdom. Now that I have my own piece of wetland, and my own (edible) wildlife wandering in, I understand their perspectives better. But I am also now in a better position to say that no, even though we have paid for the property, that shouldn't give us the right to ruin it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Winter, Finally!

It's about time! I was too busy chasing our toddler to go outside for some real photography, but even the views from our windows have been photo-worthy.

That's Chris's anti-bunny veggi garden.

Many yards in this area include old wells. The neighbors have capped theirs with a decorative wishing-well structure in order to keep curious kids safe. (It's that box-thing hidden behind a crabapple there beyond our big pines.)

This is the ugliest view: the driveway, our falling-apart fence, slumping raspberry canes, and the street. Even this view is amazing under fresh snow.

Gabe's Garden just looks lumpy. The stately grasses are now comically slumped.

Monday, December 7, 2009

France Versus Monsanto

"France's highest court has ruled that US agrochemical giant Monsanto had not told the truth about the safety of its best-selling weed-killer, Roundup.

"The court confirmed an earlier judgment that Monsanto had falsely advertised its herbicide as 'biodegradable' and claimed it 'left the soil clean'."

Read the article on the BBC here.

And here is another good little article on many of the issues with GM crops. I particularly liked their highlight of Monsanto's advertisement on the radio news show Marketplace, produced by American Public Media. The ad causes Chris and I to wince daily on our drive home: its presence is a glaring defect in an otherwise sterling radio station.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Drat! Another food off the menu.

Chris and I have wondered why sometimes a sushi dinner - and from a high-quality place mind you, because Chris can smell a not-so-fresh-fish from thirty paces - we both go running for the restroom. And I do mean running. It's never a mild thing, either: we're either fine, or the meal shoots through both of us.

The reason why: many sushi joints serve up a fish called Escolar in place of tuna. Escolar contains gempylotoxin, which "may lead to intestinal cramping and diarrhea".

It should be telling how bad for you this fish is by the way Japan treats it. The nation that eats every sea critter it can get its hands on, creepy, yucky, endangered, poisonous, or otherwise, has banned Escolar from consumption since 1977.

Equally baffling and repugnant, many restaurants also serve up endangered species.

It is unclear whether the restaurants knowingly serve up the wrong fish. I suspect in the case of the endangered fish, it is accidental, because a rare food could potentially be sold on the black market for a much higher price, while cheaper substitutes for tuna are easy to come by. I would give the restaurants the benefit of the doubt, but in this day and age, I call their mistakes negligence.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Natural Topiary

When asked about his garden, a friend on mine shakes his head, and self-mockingly bemoans the "penis-shaped bushes" that greet his guests.

He may be exaggerating, but he isn't alone. Evergreen shrubs in these parts each winter lose needles on their lowest four feet. When I first encountered the phenomenon, I assumed the shrubs in question were diseased. (They weren't; they were trying and failing to regrow, and I regret to say that I killed two of them.)

It's the deer that do it. Overpopulated and hungry, they eat what they can reach.

Some examples from around the neighborhood:

They're a little pointy for proper phalluses, but they would make good companion plants for the standard suburban topiary "meatball".

They're not native, but. . .

Alyssum, also known as sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, has really grown on me. They aren't native, and they do readily reseed, but I haven't heard of them being invasive around here. These are all volunteers growing where the parent plants dropped seeds last year, and they are some of the last blossoms in the yard.

Looking closely at them this year, I realized: oh, these are in the mustard family!" See how as the flowers open upwards, they leave a long stem of seed-pods? And also each flower has four petals.

All mustards are edible, but after one taste I have to report that I won't be eating alyssum salads any time soon.

Found them!

Dang it, I looked all over for these images when I made the post on violet seeds.

Anti-Junkmail Experiment

Well, it was worth a try. I had some post-cards printed up that said "please remove me from your mailing list." The cards included a list of possible reasons for my wanting to receive junkmail, from which I could circle what I wanted to tell the company, including "you spent my donation on requests for more donations" and "your mailings are a waste of paper and other resources."

That's a card to White Flower Farm on top: a particularly over-priced mail-order plant company that spreads invasives and sold me some under-performing saffron crocus bulbs. Along with various other unwanted catalog-senders, this batch of mailings also included some environmental organizations that I really, deeply want to support, but who have irritated me away with wasteful mailings and free gifties that I don't want, and don't want to put in a landfill.

On each card, I cut out and pasted the address of the company or organization on the right, as well as my own address on the left, so that the company would know who to cross off of their list.

My expectation was that these cards would be received and largely ignored. What I didn't expect was to find them returned in my own mailbox.

I like to think highly of our postal service, but it seems that either they have forgotten where on a postcard the mail-to address traditionally goes, or they are permitting companies to print return addresses on their mailings that are actually unsuitable to go through the mail.

Perhaps after the Christmas hullaballo dies down, I will go to the post office and ask.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Landscape Corridors

" . . .the benefits of landscape corridors, the strips of habitat that connect isolated patches of habitat, extend well beyond those borders."

Beneficial Plant 'Spillover' Effect Seen From Landscape Corridors: article here.

And an amazing corridor success story here.

"It took a while for people to hear our answer: No, we do not want to preserve that ugly mess we want to restore it to something beautiful. We want to restore native vegetation to those cut and fill slopes on the Coal Canyon side of the freeway, and to the stables and the raceway. We want to rip the pavement and lighting out of this underpass. Then we want to take Coal Canyon out of its concrete tomb and put at least half of its flow back into that underpass. We don’t want to preserve that vehicle underpass we want to transform it into a waterway and an underpass for animals, plants, and people.

"The restoration is really the most exciting part of this project. So often conservationists in California spend their lives fighting one dismal project after another, trying to slow the rate at which things get worse. But this project is different. It is not working AGAINST something bad it is working FOR something good. Restoring a functional linkage for all plants and animals in what is now a degraded area is a powerful and positive thing to do. I am not aware of any other effort to restore a biological corridor with this level of regional importance to so many species. This effort will set a global precedent. Conservation-minded citizens and public servants around the world will soon be able to look at Coal Canyon as an inspiring example of how an ecological mistake was corrected through thoughtful public action. "

They did it! They bought up 600-plus acres and transformed the underpass for the use of migrating animals.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Collecting Violet Seeds

I love violets. Maybe someday I will learn how to tell one type from another. For now, I assume that they are all native plants, and I give them names like "the violets that grow under my poison sumac" and "the violets that grow in the muddy lawn at the school down the street".

The violets in Gabe's Garden, pictured above, are "the violets from Marna's Driveway", and they are the first violets that I have been able to watch for an entire growing season. Now, finally, I have an answer to the question "why do I never see a dead violet blossom?" It seems that when the flower is ready to make seeds, it bends over and hides its head in (or very near) the dirt. Obsessive gardeners take note: this variety of flower saves you the trouble of dead-heading!

Months later, the little football-shaped pod goes from green to greenish yellow, and once again stands up straight above the foliage. Then, when it dries, the pod pops open in three segments, revealing a couple dozen round seeds. Further drying causes the pod segments to constrict a little further, which tiddlywinks the seeds airborne. (At any rate that is what I have concluded after emptying some of the seed pods into my lawn. Pinch them gently in just the right spot and the seeds go flying rather forcefully.)

I seem to have missed seed-season for the "poison sumac" violets and "the one lonely violet under the maple tree out back", but I nabbed a few remaining pods from the "muddy lawn" violets, and lots from the violets in Gabe's Garden. The paper-bag method seems to have worked: the green pods left in a bag have dried and popped open nicely. Now I just have to see if they germinate. Does anyone out there know if these seeds need exposure to winter weather to germinate? If not, I would like to start some of these indoors over the winter. Already dreaming of Spring, I lust for violets.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I love my husband: he takes photos for me when I'm too busy!

Unidentified Flying Object. . .

I looked out last week just in time to see the frost on Gabe's Garden lit up by the rising sun.

But what is that speck over the far clump of grass? Look closely. . .

It appears that a male cardinal was flying past just as I pressed the button!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Poetry of Winter Light

The shifting light seduced me out into the wetland today.

I am not good enough with a camera to adequately show what I see when I look at these shifting patches of sunlight.

Artist Andy Goldsworthy calls the darkness of holes "the fire of the earth". I have to agree. The first time I approached this glaring note of black, I was afraid there was an animal watching me from the darkness. Once the mud freezes, this must be grand central station for creatures seeking shelter in an otherwise flat and exposed area.

It's a tipped, but still living tree that created this cave, and the shock of its shadows contrasts in such a fascinating way with the subtle purples and golds of the woods, the soft greens of the distant evergreens, and the blue of the sky. If I ever pick up a paintbrush again, I will try, again, to capture those subtle winter colors.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Farming and Jellyfish

One of these days I'll do a real post again, I promise!

But for now, here is an inintended consequence of modern agriculture: the runoff coupled with rising sea temperatures creates ideal habitat for jellyfish. We are going to have to start eating these things soon if we continue to deplete our farmland and fail to conserve the ocean's fish.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I lied.

Here I am, again, using the blog as a scrapbook. Sorry! But this one is uplifting, I promise!

In Lynn, Massachusetts, the Food Project has started up yet another urban farm plot. If you follow the link, it will take you to an amazing series of super-wide-angle photos that document the transition of urban field to farm. I have been curious what methods they have used to avoid growing plants in lead-laced soil. In Lynn, they laid down plastic over the entire plot and then dumped alternating rows of soil and mulch on top of that.

Okay okay, just one more. . .

I really need to start posting on the backlog of photos from my own yard. But I can't help it. . . just one more article. . .

"We have shown that while genetic engineering has provided a solution to the problem of viral diseases, there are also these unintended consequences in terms of additional susceptibility to other diseases."

Creating new varieties of plants doesn't make a perfect plant? Shocking.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Death by Deforestation

"The Maya are often depicted as people who lived in complete harmony with their environment,' says PhD student Robert Griffin. "But like many other cultures before and after them, they ended up deforesting and destroying their landscape in efforts to eke out a living in hard times."

"We modeled the worst and best case scenarios: 100 percent deforestation in the Maya area and no deforestation," says Sever. "The results were eye opening. Loss of all the trees caused a 3-5 degree rise in temperature and a 20-30 percent decrease in rainfall."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Failings of Herbicides

As expected, the weeds are adapting to Monsanto's herbicides, which is forcing a return to more organic forms of agriculture:

"The development of herbicide-tolerant crops has played a role in the growth of megafarms of 10,000 plus acres. That amount of land can’t be farmed unless you’re doing it from atop a sprayer and a combine. But dealing with pig weed now involves putting workers out in the fields to pull weeds by hands—pig weed is sturdy enough to “stop a combine in its track” according to the ABC News report. Handweeding isn’t feasible for these massive farms, which is why thousands of acres of land devoted to commodity crops are being abandoned in the face of the superweed onslaught.

"The Rodale article observes that mechanical cultivators—once considered an old-fashioned and outmoded approach to weed control—are making a comeback in the South as “steel in the field” becomes important again."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Perennial Wheat Project on NPR

Projects like this one fill me with hope!

"It's taken DeHaan years and years, but as we look around the greenhouse today, we see the result of his work: hundreds of plants, sitting on waist-high benches, that are a cross between wheat and grasses that grow year-round.

"DeHaan will soon plant them in the fields. He hopes that maybe — just maybe — up will sprout a wheat plant that produces lots of grain and actually tastes something like wheat, and has the hardiness of a native prairie grass."

Another little article here points out another potential bonus of perennial wheat:

"Perennial wheat could potentially offer farmers increased flexibility where the crop can be grazed and then harvested. "

Monday, November 2, 2009

GMO Crops Versus Organic

Susan Harris over at Garden Rant ended her post yesterday with the question "how about an answer to that tricky question about whether traditional organic farming methods can feed our overpopulated world?"

My take on GMO crops is not that GMO crops have anything inherently wrong with them. It is the lack of testing of these products that scares me. Monsanto actively squelches testing of its products. Also, varieties of plants that are created to be doused in more pesticides rather than less – yuck. And there’s the horrifying trend towards GMO-makers suing organic farms to death when the GMO pollen contaminates the organic crops. While genetic modification could be used to improve the world’s food supply safely, it is instead being used to earn its makers as much money as possible, while not addressing long-term problems.

There are also issues not just with GMO crops, but with conventional agricultural practices in general: the land has been so energetically plowed, and plowed, and plowed again, that there is no longer significant worm, insect, or fungal life in the soil. Monoculture farms displace and kill larger life-forms. Erosion is a huge problem, both for the farm’s productivity and through pollution of water downstream. And in conventional practices, the depleted nutrients in the soil are replaced with additives of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, but lesser nutrients aren’t added back to the soil, and therefore don’t end up in our food.

Due to these problems, our current agricultural model is unsustainable. If modern agriculture (GMO companies included) don’t step up to address these problems, then organic farming will be the only option left.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Birds of Prey in Wrentham

This is a Broad-winged Hawk named Rufus, and his extraordinary keeper, Marla Isaac. Marla rescues and rehabilitates animals with New England Reptile and Raptor. Last weekend the Open Space Committee of the town of Wrentham hosted Marla and six of her magnificent birds in an educational and riveting demonstration of native New England birds of prey.

Even knowing ahead of time that the presentation would include owls, it took my breath away to see an actual owl sitting on a human hand. This is a Barn Owl, whose name I didn't catch.

As Marla presented each bird, she walked around so that everyone could get astonishingly up close and personal. We had the best seat in the house: a picnic blanket right up front. Chris stood against a tree and snapped photos the whole show while I minded Gabe. I had to take my little munchkin aside to keep him busy during the first half of the presentation, which was all talk; but once the birds were brought out of their boxes, I scurried back to our seat.

This is "Merlin", a Great Horned Owl. I think he could see straight into my soul with those eyes.

Marla seemed to be not just an old pro with handling birds, but also with audiences of children. She didn't miss a beat when someone (else's) toddler scampered out to her feet.

Each time she walked a bird past our blanket, I could swear the birds stared down at my son with a look that said "tasty!"

There is something very cat-like about owls. They have such haughty dignity. . . but also seem to appreciate a good head-rub.

Merlin's egg was rescued from a tree that had been cut down. Because Marla was the first thing he saw on hatching, he is imprinted on her - which means she's a big mama owl to him.

. . .and only Mama could get away with this! Here, Marla demonstrates exactly how long an owl's neck is under all of those feathers.

This is a photo worthy of icanhascheezeburger!

This is "Sargent", the fastest animal on Earth: a Peregrine Falcon. It surprised me how small he was. These birds are as flawless-looking as airplanes.

This gigantic bird is a Red-Tailed Hawk. You can see his red tail feathers more clearly in the next photo:

. . .and this eerie beauty is "Uncle Fester" the Turkey Vulture.

And now for some flying! Rufus, the little Broad-winged Hawk in the first photo, was turned loose for some aerial fun. Here, he is diving after his favorite toy. If cats had wings, they would play in this manner.

Marla understands what motivates her birds. It's unsentimental: they use her for food.

Here, Rufus gets some quail. He gulped an entire leg-bone like a carnie swallowing a sword. These birds require the equivalent of entire quail each and every day.

Before filling the raptor's belly with raw meat, bones, and feathers, Marla sent Rufus flying back and forth to perches strategically placed throughout the audience - including one almost directly behind me. I had the amazing experience of watching a hawk fly almost straight towards my face. It took a concerted effort not to duck. Rufus passed so close that I was buffeted by the wind he stirred.

Rufus did some guffaw-worthy hops about the area, including comical slippery landings on the smooth tops of the bird boxes.

Here, he flutters unexpectedly to a playground structure.

This boy had an encounter that he'll undoubtedly be talking about for the rest of his life.

This is Rufus striking a pose on Marla's head. . .

. . .and being removed from Marla's head.

Thank you Marla for the amazing presentation!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Rural New England

Most of my area looks like standard suburbia. But around the fringes, old rural New England is still peeking through.