Thursday, April 30, 2009

Failure to Yield

The Union of Concerned Scientists has published a report on the progress of genetically engineered crops, which concludes thusly:

"Failure to Yield is the first report to closely evaluate the overall effect genetic engineering has had on crop yields in relation to other agricultural technologies. It reviewed two dozen academic studies of corn and soybeans, the two primary genetically engineered food and feed crops grown in the United States. Based on those studies, the UCS report concluded that genetically engineering herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has improved yields only marginally. The increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years, the report found, was largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices"

Oxfam nods in agreement.

Peat Moss

Peat moss is one of those things that most gardeners use without question. "Mix in a bale of peat moss" is a typical garden instruction for such things as preparing soil for blueberry bushes, or mixing up potting soil. But what is peat moss, exactly?

"Peat moss is the partially decomposed remains of formerly living sphagnum moss from bogs. . . The biggest problem with peat moss is that it's environmentally bankrupt. . .Yes, peat moss is a renewable resource, but it can take hundreds to thousands of years to form."

Read the rest of the article over at Garden Rant, and ammend your soil with compost instead.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Organic Farming Versus Conventional

"A key question that is often asked about ecological agriculture, including organic agriculture, is whether it can be productive enough to meet the world’s food needs. While many agree that ecological agriculture is desirable from an environmental and social point of view, there remain fears that ecological and organic agriculture produce low yields.

"This short paper will summarize some of the available evidence to demystify the productivity debate and demonstrate that ecological agriculture is indeed productive.

"In general, yields from ecological agriculture can be broadly comparable to conventional yields in developed countries. In developing countries, ecological agriculture practices can greatly increase productivity, particularly if the existing system is low-input, which is the largely the case for Africa. This paper will focus mainly on evidence from developing countries. "

Read the rest of the paper here.

Farming in the City

Even before this recent economic crud, Detroit looked shockingly decrepit. Beautiful old houses have been left to rot - visibly falling apart - and the city is wide open with vacant lots where the crumbling architecture has been bulldozed. I have seen worse - in India. To see such decay at home touches me deeply, particularly since Chris' family lives in the Detroit area.

This is why I perk up at any mention of farming in Detroit. I hope this plan comes to fruition!

As a footnote, I find it irritating that the president of Greening of Detroit, an organization promoting small community garden plots, is against the idea. Detroit needs all the help it can get.

King of the Woods

In the dry side of our woods, the jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, has started to spring from the ground. The individual plants seem to magically appear, rather than grow. Just like last year, this was one of the first jacks to pop up.

I would like to establish ramps over in this area eventually. In photographs I have seen of ramps, they grow alongside jacks.

When the bulldozers sculpted this piece of land, they left some lumps of earth and stone around the edges of the wetland. These tiny dry hills are covered with ferns and Canada mayflower, Maianthemum canadense, which is a delicate native plant that puts up individual leaves with seeming randomness across the forest floor.

The forest floor is still mostly bare. This will be covered with ferns soon.

Do you see the speck of yellow on top of the boulder?

That speck is the King of the Woods. The previous owners set him loose here, and now he guards the woods for us. I want to find more such dinosaurs for Gabe's Garden.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Garden Supported Charity

I've been making a pilgrimage with Michelle down to Martha's Vineyard every spring since before we were married. We travel down to meet with friends we may only get to see once a year and participate in the annual MS Tour of the Vineyard Bikeathon. I've never been particularly skilled at raising money for the event, and most years I just end up making the minimum donation to participate myself. This year, however, I had the idea that I would put my garden to good use and have offered up veggie rewards for those locals or co-workers that donate to this noble cause.

The plan is simple. If a co-worker donates ten dollars or more they get put on a mailing list letting them know when tomatoes have arrived at work giving them first pick. I brought in around a two-hundred pounds of tomatoes last year so there is a lot to go around, but getting a jump can't hurt! The three largest contributors also get to take part of a garden sized CSA, getting a portion of whatever the garden is producing. I sent out the e-mail last night and the response today was better than I've ever had before so I'm encouraged.

For family and friends who are to far to participate you can still donate to this worthy cause and know that you have my deepest thanks. For those gardeners out there that have extra veggies each year and charities they like to support here's a simple way you can combine the two together.



Monday, April 27, 2009

Walking - Walking! - In the Wetland

Thanks to my path, I can now casually stroll into our wetland when it isn't frozen solid! This makes me deliriously happy. No mud, no ticks, and no poison ivy!

Our neighbors Adam and Diane had some trees cut down a few years ago, and despite their attempts to give it away as firewood, they still ended up with a large pile of rotting wood. They generously gave it to me for use along the edges of my path. It will provide a home for insects, which will in turn feed the birds and other wildlife; and over time the logs will become mossy lumps like the fallen trees that are slowly being digested into the swamp here.

My little "pond" is swollen with water. I would be concerned with the scum in it, if the surrounding vernal ponds weren't equally scummy. The frogs don't seem to mind. One or two always dive for cover when I come near.

My path lets me view the rock from this angle now. Do you see those two lone skunk cabbages by the rock? I left them there deliberately. It was gardening by the subtractive method.

I wasn't expecting to have made so much progress by now, but the sand bridge gave me access to a mossy sort of island. Now, finally, I can get a look at what grows here al all times of year, rather than just in the dead of winter when the muck is a sheet of solid ice. And it turns out that many of those bare shrubs are spicebush - Lindera benzoin. This shrub is native all along the East Coast. It is the host plant to the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and the berries are a good food source for birds in the autumn. The flowers aren't as showy as a lot of the other trees that are currently blooming, but they do make lovely splashes of color where the slanting sunlight illuminates them framed against shadowed trunks. Viewing them is a more intimate experience than viewing one of the more popular nursery-cultivated flowering trees.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Surprisingly Hot Weekend

Chris' photos put mine to shame, but I have been in too much of a hurry to do more than grab snapshots. This weekend I cleared out most of the remaining unused rocks from Gabe's Garden. The hard work is done! Now the space needs mulch and plants.

I paid a visit to Marna's garden, and she sent me home with oodles of plants, including three colors of violets. These tough little beauties are not only native, edible, and resistant to drought, but after being squashed into a bag, they came out looking unscathed. This photo was taken after transplant and a day of eighty-degree sun beating down on them!

More violets, between the Christmas tree and a large stone that makes a nice little seat. My friend Jen saved the day by helping me plant these. I was exhausted, and (as it turned out) rather sunburned.

I lined the underside of the bird-bath with violets. This resulted in the birdbath being a bit crooked. I will have to fix that.

This location will be getting strawberries around the edges, but the central part - where the shell is sitting - will just be gravel. It will be a play area for Gabe to push toy cars around in.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Waiting for the Last Frost Date

Days like today lead to many a spoiled garden. It was sunny and in the eighties with the whole world seeming to come to life. Still the average last frost date for our area is between May 8th and the 22nd depending on who you talk to. Last year I put out my tomatoes on a day like today and ended up losing them a couple weeks later. Gamble big and you might win, but I'd rather play it safe and steady. The tomatoes will have plenty of time to get huge. I spent the majority of my day today either indoors miserable from my cold, or outside trying to find things to photograph. The first photo is of flowers from a Bradford Pear. An invasive tree that our neighbors have which I must admit is really pretty to look at.

While I was taking the above photo I heard wing flaps above my head. When I looked up I saw a sparrow about six feet away on a higher branch and managed to get him in focus before he flew away. As Michelle said two invasives in the same photo!

I'm pretty sure Michelle tsk'd when I said these blue flowers looked nice. I assume that means their invasive, but maybe she can clarify.

The bane of all those who would have a perfect lawn. The humble dandelion.

I took this picture from the big rock overlooking Michelle's pond. Just some moss, fiddleheads, and a log.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Brilliant Spring Day

Today was a brilliant spring day with sunny dry weather and a nice cool breeze. The soil in the garden heated up nicely today and all sorts of things sprung to life. I saw this composition of the young pea bracketed by old dried up roots and a nice splash of red from some fallen flowers off one of the trees and jumped on it. I really love how peas kind of explode out of their seeds with all sorts of leaves ready to go. As you can see from the rock in the picture our soil isn't exactly perfect. With only one year under our belts we have a lot of improvements to make with compost additions in the coming years.

I've been checking the Asparagus bed every day, and I swear that there weren't any spears poking through the soil this morning. This evening when we arrived home there were spears poking through the soil all over the place. The one above is long enough that I figure I must have missed it previously.

Most of the spears are just poking out a little bit like this one. They all look very healthy though and tasty. The problem is we aren't supposed to eat any this year, giving them one more year to really build up their roots before we harvest anyone is the plan. Michelle really want to eat a bunch and I'm going to be trying to fend her off;)

While the getting was good I ran around the yard taking pictures of emerging plants that Michelle was pointing out.

It is pretty cool to see just how many different types of ferns we have around our yard.

I really like the variety of colors and shapes. They feel so alien at times.

The flip side is they can also look so elegant and fragile. I remember as a kid crawling under a canopy of ferns and pretending they were a fort.

We didn't manage to harvest all of the raspberries last year and some of them dried out and hung around. Hopefully this year we'll be better about that.

Michelle pointed out a spice bush that was just starting to really wake up.

I would love to find a Swallowtail caterpillar on one of these later this year.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tomato Seedlings

I've got a terrible head cold that is keeping me up, but trying to be productive through the sinus pressure I've been working on getting all of my tomato seedlings potted up. They're now sitting happily in their new large cow-pot homes. They're also dramatically smaller than they were at this point last year for me. Most of that is I actually waited to start them up this year. In a couple more weeks they should be a good size for plunking in the ground.

At this point there are 49 seedlings that have been potted up. In the end I only have room for around 22 of those. The others I plan to give away, or use to fill in spots in the garden where things didn't turn out like I expected. If the worst should happen and bunnies ravage the garden again this year I'm sure all of the tomato seedlings will come in handy.

The peas are coming in nicely around the pea towers. All told I should have around a hundred pea plants in the garden this year. The seedlings are looking beautiful and tender. I have a strong fear that ninja bunnies are going to scale the fence and get at them. Hopefully the bunnies in our area haven't had any ninja training.

Bugs are Cool and Creepy

Shoo fly.

I have no clue what this guy is, but he was cold enough that he held really still for me.

Looks like a gnat of some kind. I swallowed way too many of these when I ran cross-country in high school.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Do You Know Where Your Seeds Come From?

“Monsanto is now estimated to control between 85 and 90 percent of the U.S. nursery market. This includes the pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer markets.”

“Six companies Du Pont, Mitsui, Monsanto, Syngent, Aventis and Dow control 98 percent of the world's seeds.”

“. . . in 1981 there were approximately 5,000 vegetable seed varieties available in U.S. catalogs. Today there are less than 500, a 90 percent reduction.”

Quoted from an article over at Countryside Magazine.

Rocks and Strawberries

The raspberries and strawberries are waking up, and they are well on their way to taking over the world.

Just as I hoped they would do, the strawberries have climbed out of the stone edging and planted themselves in the cracks. Hopefully this will mean less weeding, because they strawberries are the weeds.

Over in Gabe’s Garden, I have started adding strawberry runners in between the stones. Hero gave me the idea for this with his strawberry rock pile.

Some friends visited this weekend to dig strawberry runners. They took home three boxes full, and still barely dented the surplus, so I have a lot of spare plants to work with. Our whole lawn may eventually be overrun with strawberries. Strawberry fields forever!

I pondered the matter of including Chris’ bird-bath to Gabe’s Garden, but concluded that in addition to being ugly, it posed a hazard to small children when perched up on its silly cement leg. So I set it up on some rocks, down at kid-level. Looks much better like this, don’t you think?

I must have moved an actual ton of rocks this weekend. My arms feel like I tried to get to Boston by flapping.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Christopher and the Pea

I've been anxiously awaiting the germination of my peas. Like a brooding hen I walk around their plots each morning, and take care to meet their needs as best I can. I've worked hard to keep them moist but not flooded and generally just worried that they're not going to come up. The first peas to come up is are of the Alaska bush variety. Since they are under a floating row cover I imagine the soil temperature is just slightly higher which sped things along. Interestingly enough the peas were the ones that were soaked in Vitamin C, the non-vitamin C peas have not come up yet. I'm hoping this means the uncovered peas under the towers will start coming up in the next week.

The mustard weeds are everywhere in the garden. Literally everywhere and they are germinating like crazy in this cold spring weather. This pile of seedlings is the result of sweeping out the garage. The seedlings are easily identified and edible so I really don't mind. I'm pretty sure I'm going to save mustard seed again this year now that I know so much more about the process.

This mustard over-wintered in a crack at the edge of the garage. I though it had died but it has already gone to seed with bright yellow flowers soon to emerge. I admire its resilience.

It was too cold for my tastes today and being quite sore I decided to take it easy and just take pictures around the yard. I got these shots and some shots of some insects that were to cold to fly away as I approached. I'll post those tomorrow once I've had time to edit them.

This is my new desktop. I'm sure Michelle could tell you what plant this is but I can't. I just know I like how it looks.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Back to Back Sunny Days!

On Friday the forecast called for a sunny Saturday and then rain on Sunday which left me pretty bummed Saturday night as I just couldn't do all the work I needed to do to get the third raised bed finished. Luckily the meteorologists were wrong and we had an absolutely gorgeous day today.

When we moved into the house we started up a compost pile in the woods that we added material to for around eight or nine months before starting the pile next to the shed. When I say it is a compost pile I mean it. It was just a pile in the woods. Unfortunately Michelle ended up adding a ton of sticks to the pile which may decay sometime within the decade. Still there was lots of black gold in the mix to be had, so I whipped up a simple screen using four 2ft sections of scrap 2x4 and left of chicken wire. This let me sift out the large sticks and just get the good stuff.

After I had dumped the first of two wheel barrels full of compost on the third bed the scope of our garden started to settle in. We have far too much growing space and far to small a capacity to generate compost to supply the garden. One of my goals in the coming weeks is to find a good source of quality compost in the area as we need several cubic yards at least. Our soil isn't horrible, but it needs a lot of organic matter added to it. At the rate we generate compost we'll never catch up. Still the pile of black on the bed is a happy start.

The third bed will be the tomato bed this year and with it complete the majority of the prep work is done. I still have the 4x8ft fourth bed to prepare, but that'll be a breeze compared to the effort it took to prepare the first three. All told the garden provides a little more than 420sq ft of bed space. I don't count the asparagus bed even though I probably should. The asparagus and raspberry/strawberry beds are permanent fixtures so they really don't count as garden space that can be used in rotation. Including them we have roughly 750sq ft of beds growing edibles. Considering that we started with none we've come a long way in the past two years.

The garden is still largely devoid of life at the moment. The peas still haven't come up and I'm starting to worry a little about them. There is mustard growing everywhere and the salad greens have come up underneath the row cover. I also bought some more mature greens this weekend up at Medway Gardens as I was getting impatient. I'm hoping to keep a good stream of leafy greens coming through good succession planting this year.

The compost in the big black ball is coming along. Some of the paper still has a way to go, but the organics are looking pretty nice. When I rotated the ball this weekend and looked in I saw a ton of red wrigglers who looked very happy indeed. Ya for worm poop. Another week or two and I'm going to screen the ball's compost and see what we get.

Large Red Seed

We found a large red seed in the woods behind the shed. Michelle decided to plant it in Gabe's garden but no matter how much we water it the thing just won't germinate. I think the three holes in it must have killed the seed but Michelle isn't so sure. Whatever made the holes must have been pretty big, as I can fit my fingers in them. A woodpecker maybe? Can anyone identify it? ;)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Long Overdue

Somebody has been testing pesticides to make sure that when used properly they aren't harmful to humans or animals, right? Well, this glass is half full: the Environmental Protection Agency is about to start testing pesticides to determine if they disrupt the endocrine system.

I hate to be one of those people who reads dark intentions between the lines, but you've got to love how CropLife America had petitioned to have the changes made to the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program "in an effort to reduce the costs and time requirements associated with the new testing regime." Meaning, I'm sure, that they are afraid that they'll have some bad press when the harmful effects of their products are brought to light.

Sorry for all the boring political posts this week! I promise I'll get back to posting happy photos of the yard this weekend.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Gabe’s Garden

This is the view of Gabe’s Garden from the window of his room. I had to patch the image together from multiple shots, which is why I don’t use this perspective more often.

1. This open area is currently stripped down to the sand that makes up most of our yard. It will soon be covered with several inches of playground-quality mulch, for the comfort of roly-poly toddlers. The mulch is my birthday present from Chris. Just what I wanted, yay! He wrapped some of it up in a diaper box as revenge for the jar of water I gave him for Christmas.

2. The larger rocks came from behind the house, and the rest came out of the ground right here. I am still trying to figure out how to stack the rocks in such a way as to not pose a falling danger to toddlers, who, to my surprise, are strong enough to rearrange furniture when the mood suits them, and not to my surprise, are lacking the wisdom to know that pulling things on top of themselves hurts.

3. These rocks were left over and need to be moved out of the way.

4. This is our live Christmas tree from 2007. I don’t know what kind of pine tree it is, or if it is native, but I like the idea of a tree for Gabe to decorate.

5. I moved one of my highbrush blueberries over here.

6. And another blueberry over here. The blueberries weren’t doing so well where I planted them behind the house. I left the other two in their original locations for comparison. The soil here was amended with some sort of organic food for acid-loving plants.

7. Over here I relocated a bee balm and scarlet sage that followed me home from a plant exchange last year. Also, one of the two surviving lavenders that I started last spring from seed. Also there is creeping thyme at several locations around the circle. The thyme isn’t native, but it stands a good chance of crowding out weeds that will inevitably grow between the rocks. And it came free from my neighbor, along with what appears to be volunteers of barren strawberry.

8. This will be a serviceberry fort for Gabe to play in.

9. This is the poor, doomed Norway maple. These trees are now banned for sale and propagation in Massachusetts. They have a reputation for creating such dark, dry shade that they can’t be gardened beneath. However, if you look closely, the greenest grass in our yard grows beneath this tree. This is because the hot dry summer weather absolutely cooks the thin soil here. I am keeping the maple long enough to use its microclimate to help establish native plants. In the mean time, I lopped off its lower branches, reserving only one to hold wind-chimes or other doo-dads to scare away the animals.

10. The base of the Norway maple is now home to some of our refugee bearded irises. There is landscape fabric underneath them, but it was too much work to remove, and I didn’t feel like coddling the non-native plants.

11. This lamp no longer works. I assumed it was because I nicked the wire when digging the bamboo hole, which is off-screen to the bottom left. . .

12. . . .however, this appears to be the wire leading to the lamp, so now we have no idea where the damage occurred. I would rather have a nice garden than a functioning lamp, so I may just re-bury the thing and forget about it.