Sustainable WNC

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Archive for May, 2007

Ever’thinz gone to seed

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

Ever’thinz gwoin’ to seed
As my winter and early Spring garden begins to “bolt”, that is, sending up it’s flowers preparing for its next generation, I begin the ritual of saving next years seeds. Really, its my rope. Safety rope, as well as, the rope that rings the bell of my independence. I don’t save them all and I dont save them from a lot of things I eat, But saving seeds of some basic food staples gives me great satisfaction and pride (the good kind). It’s so easy. The hard part for me is when I try to genetically engineer my plants. For instance, I try not to eat my best ears of corn, or biggest garlic cloves, or the last heads of red lettuce that bolt. These are characteristics that I want to cultivate in my plants. Granted, I don’t get that deep sense of resolution one gets from entirely plowing up a bed and freshly planting another. I must steer around the few gangly looking plants that are in the process of going to seed. They flower, and that is pretty, and I get some beneficial insects attracted to the garden, but then they fall over, look weedy, and in constant threat of being trampled. There is something of a lesson in tolerance and patience that harkens to a Buddhist teaching of haveing compassion and respect for all aspects of a being’s life. The reward is that I am on the road to be more patient and respectful and I have a little bundle of the promise of next year’s food supply in my own hands! With good returns as well. When I plant 1 kernal of my sweet corn I’ve been growing for the last 22 years I get a return of 2 ears averaging 136 kernals on each. That’s a return of 1:272 in 60 days! On top of that, every year the plants are better adapted to the soil and weather conditions that they are grow in making them easier to grow and be more productive. Keepin’ it local, baby.


Some seeds that I find easy to save and perpetuate are: corn, beans, skwosh, red lettuce, arugula, and tomatoes. The bulbs are garlic, potatoes, sun chokes, dahlias. My sunflowers, dill and red mustard seem to volunteer year after year so I don’t bother with these.
When harvesting, select a couple of plants that have the most desirable characteristics. Let them just do their thing. Flower, seed, get old, gray and wrinkly just like you and me. Continue to water and care for them, maybe honor them by staking them up, and plant the next succession of veggies around them. Last Fall I planted chard in my carrots and as I ate the carrots the chard grew to fill in the space. This Spring I’ll take up my lettuce and plant my corn etc. They will flower and go to seed amongst the young’uns like grandkids visiting the grandparents. When the seed heads get brown it will be a good time to harvest them. Pluck them off the plant and continue to let them dry in a shady, dry spot. When they are crispy and fall away from the husks, crumble them up and separate the seeds from the chafe. I like to wrap them in paper with name and date and put them in a glass mason jar with a bean sprout top on it on it, but poking holes in a mayonaise lid will suffice for letting some air in. I also put a piece of brown paper bag over the jar and then screw the lid on and that guards against moths and other sneaky little varmits. Store them away on a moderately forgotten shelf. That’s it. It’s really satisfying to have even one strain of favorite veggie that is uniquely yours. I think after 10 years you can name it yourself. More and more there are people doing the same thing with their favorite seeds and I hear about all these seeds swap now. A great opportunity for us in the gardening community to come together and share stories, experiences, and genes. You are not A-L-O-N-E out there in the universe. (Hmm, I wonder if anyone ever reads this blog? Mom…? Dad…..?)

If you are just getting started with saving seed from scratch, I recommend that you start at a local seed swap with local varieties that have been proven by local gardeners Heirloom varieties gotten from companies that are interested in preserving genetic diversity and our food heritage are another good option and between the two is a balance between local authenticity and a solution to possible inbreeding. Sources for heirloom seeds are High mowing seeds at the French Broad food coop or mailorder at Jonny’s seeds. At the big box stores hybrids are available but they are too genetically unstable for saving as seed, often sterile and revert to having undesirable characteristics. A plan of obsolescence that keeps the people dependent on seed companies and less dependent on their community. I’m shocked at the copyrights being slapped all over our seeds. This year’s fruit tree catalogue of age old varieties had trademarks on them because of a “sport”. (Some small difference that had shone up in an orchard somewhere amongst the millions of clones.) I saw no difference at all in the pictured fruit, and since they want to sell “their” variety, the original variety is now unavailable. In the future if someone wishes to propagate that tree they will have to pay royalties. They stole trees that should be in the public domain. With there being less and less small local propagation nurseries it will be a matter of time before these few corporations will have trademarks on all the fruit trees. If we dont start perpetuating our local heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables we will have passively let our birthright to essential food sources be taken over by companies very far away. Where’s the freedom is that?

So now I get to tell you a true story about me and my corn.

Once upon a time in a holler far, far away a young man determined, and border line hell bent, lived in a rather bumpy province reffered to as West Virginia. Suspected by most to be the place where the movie “Deliverance” was shot he met a local woman, Phyllis. She was one of them Hilton girls up second creek over in Hollywood (where the stars shine all night). Well, her pappy was of the old mountaineering breed that, even in the eighties of the last century, continued hunting, trapping, and digging sang and yeller root. Kept a garden as well, for as long as those Hilton girls could remember. Grew ’bout everything, but had a some corn, pop and sweet, that Phyllis was particularly prideful of. It was small, and good and it was her Daddy’s. No doubt he’d gotten from his, and his his. Well, this young man traded a few kisses for a few of these kernals and planted them. In a year or two had him a good size patch. He began to notice differences in the size of some stalks and ears, and when a particularly large ear showed up that he was partial to, instead of eating it he pollinated with it, and amongst its progeny, choose the biggest ears for to dry for seed. It wasn’t another year or two when some of the stalks began to show two ears on a stalk and then the second ear started to fill out. Over about 10 years the stalk went from givin’ one ear about 2 inches long to two ears about five inches in length. He then left of the place in the summer planting out but not taking care of his garden and after a few years the corn seed stock dwindled and was gone. Phyllis’s Pappy died and she too let her seeds go. Everybody’s lives had gone to seed. The corn line severed forever.

One day ten years later…

….the now not so young man returned back to his old home place from the city a little more polished and while cleaning up for his new girlfriend came upon a small glass vile with 20 corn Kernals in it untouched by the marauding mice. Could it be…the old corn seed? So excited, and being the 4th of July when the corn is supposed to be knee high, the man quickly set the seeds soaking in a teacup. planning on planting them out as soon as he got back to the city in North C’lina. Waking up the next morning to pack his belongings all the seeds were gone! after 10 years of not getting eaten by the mice they had finally got them. Solemnly, he packed up his things and when he picked up some clothes on the couch, there laid the seeds. All of them in a nice little pile ready to be packed up. The mice had stashed them for a later date. Been March, a hungrier mouse wouldnt have waited.

The man returned to his C’lina home in the city and watched to see if the corn would sprout. Two did. lacking any garden beds, he planted his seeds in pots. He spoiled that corn. Treated it will the best organic seaweed ferilizers he could find and they faired well and soon tassled. You have to remember when you grow a small corn patch, and this was as small as you could get, and get away with calling it a patch, your going to have to pollinate it yourself. Which is a good tool for genetically selecting the best plants. When the silks begin to appear at the end of the newly forming ears, break off some of the tassle on top that has spread open and yellow powder falls freely from. Touch the silks with it and repeat this as many times as you can remember until the silks die. You will get a lot more kernals on you ear than with wind and random chance. Now in a big corn patch there’s so much pollen floating around that you don’t have to do anything. There is a lot of pollen out there that is hybrid or genetically engineered that could pollinate my corn and pollute its genes. Probably has. They say that even in the most remote farms in Peru where there are ancient lines of local corns grown, genes from genetically engineered corn have been found in them. So its a good idea to pollinate your own corn. Keep it local, Baby.

It wasn’t just those little hard corn kernals that germinated, something in that man germinated as well. Connected him with a line. Something that seemed to have been lost was still retrievable because ever since that man got back his corn he started farming again. Squeezing it in any niche he can around his little c’lina city home, his work place and community parks. If you want a couple of these seeds just write me in the comment form. It wouldn’t be right for me to be alone in the universe with Jim Hilton’s corn seeds.

Grass- Love it or Leaf it?

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

GRASS- LOVE it or LEAF it?

You say lawn? I say Yawn. You may find something endearing about grass, and I’d bet a dollar, if you asked yourself “what?” chances are, it was marketed to you. Even though most of them are flat, those beautifully lush monocropped lawns come at a steep price. They are heavily subsidized by the petrochemical companies of which a multitude of the ag chemicals are derived. Basically, a lawn’s greenness comes from someone else’s greyness. Not to be incongruent, they are also devoid of any biodiversity. I’m a prairie boy and have had the great pleasure to seek out a few of the remaining remnants that was once our great undisturbed prairie like Riding Mountain Provincial Park in Manitoba, Canada. Hearing about the grasses that once existed is like reading the bible. Actually getting down on your knees to look and feel the tangled mat of virgin prairie is like climbing Mount Sinai and meeting the One who has no name first hand. (No wonder my hair is all gray and wispy and my eyes all starry.) It sends my heart pounding thinking about it. It was a solid dreadlock of tangled plants all living together symbiotically. It is said that it is common to have over 300 different plants in one area, each having worked out when to bloom and seed and which niche and strata to catch sun and nutrients. The grasses were of incredible diversity of shape, texture and color. Not to mention the flowers! Their seed heads….! What is it with our culture and uniformity? Diversion to diversity!? Where’s the colloquial quaintness!?! OK Bill, just breathe…..

diversity comes naturally to our environment.

When did we start worshipping Scotts turf builder and Miracle Grow over God and her miracle of growth? How can we have the presumption to create something more beautiful than the Great Spirit? If life is sacred shouldn’t we honor as much of it as we possibly can? On the other hand, my sensible partner, Monica, reminded me that it’s nice to have a little soft grass to sit on and run around in. I’ll give her that. I do enjoy sitting in a park under a shade tree most any time of the year. How many people with half acre lawns do you ever see sitting out on them playing croquet with the kids? The only time I ever see them is when they are on their riding lawn mowers guzzling gas and spewing out burnt oil from their 2 cycle motors. Why do we have to expend so much energy trying to control nature? The Creator does so much better on its own and it is SO MUCH LESS WORK!

So back to grass- mostly I don’t love it so I leaf it. It is so simple. A piece of cardboard and some leaves may be the paradigm shift you’ve been looking for in your life. There is a grassroots movement of people reclaiming their yards by taming the grass lawn with sheets of cardboard and some leaves. Granted It looks a little shabby and brown next to the Jonzes emulation of green lawn they saw on the bag of turf builder, but such is the nature of transition. After a winter of trampling upon these fluffy bran flakes (I encourage the neighborhood kids to have as many leaf fights as they want, a fine dark soil will begin to appear. It is with this medium I wish to share this next entry.

My goal is to see how quickly I can convert a pile of leaves into food production.

I wanted to expand my garden into the grassy lot in which it was located so I had 2 loads of leaves delivered by the city last Fall. This is a free service and you can call Henry Glace from the city @ 771-7221 and he will put you on the leaf list. The city is delighted to save a trip with their trucks all the way out to Azalea park with the stuff. We also benefit as a community because we save our municipality the gas and labor involved in managing these leaves throughout the year as well. If you were to buy the equivalent in bagged mulched it would be in the 1000’s of dollars. A good friend of mine, ,Andrew Goodheart, loves to tell of his neighbors who had bagged their yard waste on the side of the road to be put in the county landfill. The only redeeming part of this story was that they did recycle their bags that once contained mulch from Oregon. If you have any questions of the five fold absurdity of that please go to the comment form on this blog and I would be happy to wax poetically on this. I knew that it will take a year or two for the leaves to break down, but it meant that I didn’t have to have hand to hand combat with the turf. In the meantime, I thought, maybe I could expedite the process with a few innovations of decompositional encouragement. What I know is that leaves are extremely high in carbon and that will eventually give me much valued moisture and nutrient holding capacity in my garden soil, but to get there I needed a bunch of nitrogen. Nitrogen is hard to come by in the city. It is expensive in the form of organic bagged fertilizers or in the form of hauling manures from the outskirts of town in your truck. Neither of which I was excited about to the scale of what it would take to break down 2 truck loads of city leaves which, by the way, spread about a foot deep over and area of 30″x30″. I also want to mention that the leaves delivered by the cities trucks have been chopped up and compressed which makes them unlikely to blow into neighbor’s yard. The more the leaves are chopped the more accessible the nutrients are available to worms and microorganisms which then makes them more accessible to macro organisms like you and me. Another gardener friend of mine, Yankee Frank, has a leaf chopper which is essentially a weedeater on a garbage can. The leaves pass through and get shredded. Yankee Frank has some of the nicest soil I have ever seen and grows sweet potatoes the size of your head! Here’s an idea. What if every neighborhood chipped in to rent a good heavy duty leaf shredder instead of everyone getting their own Black and Decker piece of junk from Walmart/China. We could have our own neighborhood leaf harvesting festivals. A chance for neighbors to get together, help one another out and make their neighborhoods more beautiful. What a great community and soil builder.

The first thing I did with my leaves after spreading them out was to spread pelletized lime down. Leaves, especially oak, is very acidic to start with but will actually become a good source of calcium. Lime is considered the poor man’s fertilizer because it is so cheap and because it frees up the acids in the soil so the soil can hold onto the nutrients that plants need to thrive. You can put all the organic fertilizers on acidic soil and they will just wash away until you achieve the proper PH. You can have your PH tested by the NC extension office for FREE. They will give you a small box with instructions. I also put on all the nitrogen fertilizer I thought I could afford. The cheapest sources are bloodmeals, soybean meal, alfalfa meals… you just have to shop around. A good local source of organic bloodmeals and advice is Asheville Agricultural Systems located just south of the French Broad Food Coop on Banks street. The manager, Mike, has been very informative and has supported my community projects as well. On top of the lime and nitrogen I spread a heavy seeding of winter rye. I put down an annual rye versus a perennial rye so I could could turn it into the soil without any coming back. I did this for a green manure crop that would start breaking down the leaves and adding nutrients. I was then blessed with some good rain and a very warm January. My rye immediately germinated and turned the leaves a lush green! You could hardly see the leaves. Even the indignant Jonzes who had put up a for sale sign were impressed and took the sign back down. After our cold freezes in February the rye turned a reddish color but has since come back in delightful lush green. Call it “leaf camouflage”. Spring is here and my next course of action is to plant some veggies.

I have been gathering precious vegetable waste from various sources about town and have a nice pile of fairly well cooked compost in my bins. I don’t have enough to mix with all the leaves to any effect so I am going to open up some 3′ holes in my leaf pile and mix my compost in with the soil beneath creating, in effect, well mulched garden pots. Garden Islands from which I will plant some space loving plants like melons and skwocsh. Their roots will be nourished from the concentrated amendments, and the vines will run across the expanse of leaves and rye grass. At some point I will turn in the rye as the vines grow. I have planted potatoes as well. They seem to do well planted on top of the soil with mulch but I am skeptical about them producing much from the nutrients available just in the leaves and the soil underneath the cardboard. Perhaps if I amend the soil enough and use the leaves as just a medium to hold those nutrients there will be some productivity. (Note: since this plot will soon be turned into a house I am just leaving the potatoes as they are with no amendments. I am also rolling up the top layer of rye grass and leaves like turf and taking it over to Monica’s house to mulch her beds. I am amazed at the worm activity in the leaves. There are 1000’s of them!) As of the first week in May the potato leaves are quite green but a little leggy. I want to run some trials with variables like potatoes sandwiched in the middle of the leaves, planted on top of the ground, with amendments such as kelp, and maybe with just folliar sprays. Ultimately, with all this activity and input of materials my future garden will be that much closer to full row productivity. I’ll keep you posted.