Author Archives: William Koechling

Using the “Obama Method”


In a post this past January I posed the question of the viability of genetic engineering as a solution to hunger in Africa as does the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof. I have significant doubts as to the wisdom of using GMOs in any country and the subject continues to generate more heat than light.

It just could be that the solution to Africa’s hunger problem is less scientific. The answer may come from a simple string.

Roger Thurow is Senior Fellow for Global Agriculture & Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. He was struck recently by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s assertion that the rest of the world is jealous of American agriculture’s use of extension services. Thurow agrees and having just returned from a visit to African farmers he knows how much they cherish those services.

He says, “Extension agents were essential in spreading the agricultural revolutions in every part of the world: America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America. Everywhere except Africa. Government budgets didn’t have enough money to fund them, nor political will to insist that they do; international development agencies, in their negligence of agriculture, thought Africa, alone among the continents of the world, could do without them. As a result, the continent’s extension services fell into a woeful state during the past three decades of neglect of agriculture development. In many countries, if there were any extension agents, they did little extending; very few even had bicycles to go from farm to farm.”

Thurow goes on to tell of Vilsack’s wish to use extension services around the world. Vilsack says, “It’s not just biotechnology. It’s also conservation tillage. It’s drip irrigation. It’s multiple cropping practices.”

Very simple practices common to all gardeners in our country is what needs to be taught to Kenyan farmers. Correct spacing of seeds, simple understanding of sun and nutrient requirements are all news to those that don’t know them.

Thurow tells of Kennedy Wafula, a field manager for the One Acre Fund who shows farmers in Kenya and Rwanda a string with a knot tied every 25 centimeters. He tells them, “Twenty-five. This is the distance between plants.” He explains to them that they should only use one seed every 25 centimeters so there is no competition for sun, nutrition and water. There is no need to broadcast precious seeds only to have most of them die.

Kennedy says that One Acre farmers are able to double and triple their yields as a result of telling farmers about these practices that he calls the “Obama method.” The President’s father grew up on a Kenyan farm.

So, it seems that the knowledge of simple procedures can go much farther than expensive, questionable – even destructive technology to do a better job of providing food to a growing population.

Thurow says the Kenyan farmers often tell him “Knowledge is power.” It is food as well.

Posted in hunger, planting, seeds, Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

My Neighbor, the Carpenter

A baseball post in a gardening blog should not be confusing to those who appreciate both. For me, the anticipation of gardening and baseball – both said to have “seasons” – make Chicago winters bearable.

My brother and I lived on Nelbon Avenue in Pittsburgh. It was a mostly blue-collar neighborhood where people lived that worked for J&L Steel, H. J. Heinz, Westinghouse and U.S. Steel. It had just enough suburban charm, however, to attract workers in education, medicine and maybe the corner store.

Most of us lived in small, two-bedroom cape cod homes on streets that encircled the hills & valleys of the city’s eastern outskirts. They all looked slightly different but nobody’s stood out much. You recognized your house for its small pieces of decorative trim or maybe its brightly-colored shutters. Maybe you had a flower garden. These homes were built quickly to house the enormous numbers of baby boomers that were to come.

Elroy Face lived behind our house on Beulah Lane. His house was pretty much like everyone else’s; plain, simple and adequate. He was a slight but muscular man that looked like he might work in a steel mill or a foundry. He didn’t. Elroy was a baseball player.

We were fortunate enough to live in Pittsburgh in 1960. That was the year the Pirates won the World Series in a season that ended with an exclamation point named Bill Mazeroski.

Although two other Pirates lived a forkball’s throw away from us we liked having Elroy as a neighbor. He was an inspiration to little leaguers like myself. As an outfielder I never aspired to pitch. But if I had, I’d have known who to talk to. Elroy’s winning percentage in 1959 (.947) is a record that still stands.

Though I certainly remember the cookout he hosted in his yard after winning the World Series, a quirky fact has always stood out even more to me. This was also noted at the end of Wikipedia’s article about Roy Face. After a long, statistic-filled tribute recognizing an outstanding career in professional baseball is the line, “Following his baseball career, Face became a carpenter.”

In this morning’s New York Times there is a wonderful article by Manny Fernandez. In When Players Like Duke Snider Were Also Neighbors the author writes about a time when professional baseball players like Duke Snider, who died this week, lived in blue-collar neighborhoods.

For many of us today it would be very hard to imagine a baseball star as a neighbor. Derek Jeter next door? Kerry Wood passing out Halloween candy? (Well, maybe.) Before there were private underground parking privileges and large contracts there was an era when baseball players played because they were driven to play the game. They worked at other jobs in the off season. And some, like Elroy, found manual labor jobs after they retired.

I will always remember my neighbor whose love of the game defined what baseball means for many of us.

our house on Nelbon Avenue

Posted in history, Uncategorized Tagged , , , |

I’m a Bloomin’ Idiot


Years ago you could buy pretty much anything you wanted at a Woolworth’s store. As the Walmart of its day, it was a place I could find everything like toys, clothes, bb guns, pet supplies and have a quick soda or grilled cheese sandwich on the way out.

But early spring was my favorite time to go there as a kid. That was when I could have my pick of the brightly-dyed baby chicks or ducks to take home. I was even happy to skip the soda to get my chicks home. I also didn’t care what color they were.

I had just a bit of a flashback to that era a couple of days ago at Home Depot. While picking up a few gardening supplies I wanted to check out their selection of flowers & plants. My wife & I don’t make a big deal of Valentine’s Day but I thought a little plant might be nice.

It seemed appropriate to bring home a cactus for Cindy since we had just returned from a trip out west that included a particularly enjoyable visit to the desert. A small cactus with a few colorful flowers caught my eye. I had my choice of red or pink. It was easy. I’d get the red one. It was Valentine’s Day.

As I went through the checkout I thought of the cactus my daughter got me several years ago. There is a photo of it below. That one blooms about once a year with flowers that last two days. I was pretty lucky to find a cactus at Home Depot that was actually blooming. The label said “Fairy Castle Cactus.” Yep, I was a lucky guy and Cindy was really going to appreciate that she was getting something special for the $ 6.98 spent.

A quick Google search on how to care for our Fairy Castle Cactus provided the big reveal – and even bigger embarrassment.

A gardener that writes a blog with a name like photo-synthesis should have known that these were straw flowers hot glued on a cactus. Even as a child I understood that those Woolworth’s chicks didn’t hatch from their eggs looking like that. I knew they were dyed. But Home Depot fooled me.

I guess we now have a cactus that blooms all the time. And you’ll never, ever see a photo of it.

cactus with real flower

Posted in succulent, Uncategorized Tagged , |

How I spent the Blizzard of 2011

Joshua Tree


I’m just about to plant a large portion of my garden – tomatoes, peppers, onions & broccoli – in flats, but am reflecting a bit. My wife & I returned from a week’s vacation in southern California to find more than two feet of snow on the ground. Chicago really got hit hard by the Blizzard of 2011.

We spent quite a bit of time in the desert, particularly the Mojave Desert at Joshua Tree National Park. As rugged, harsh and lifeless as this vast expanse seems to be, the desert is a land of extreme fragility with a very delicate balance. Just like my Illinois garden, invasive species can be very detrimental. Small changes can throw it out of whack. Invasive red brome and cheatgrass can spread fire by covering large areas at Joshua Tree.

Although wildflowers, fan palms, junipers, pinyons, desert willows, yuccas, teddy-bear chollas and other trees and bushes are native here, it is the Joshua Tree that I found most interesting. Early explorer John Fremont described them as “…the most repulsive tree in the vegetable Kingdom.” A Mormon legend says the limbs of the Joshua tree resembles the outstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land.

I find humor in their human likenesses.

It’s sometimes easy for me to forget the value that my garden will receive from all that snow piled up around and over it. Unlike the desert plants we visited, my tomatoes need a lot of water. Although different ecosystems have different requirements for sustaining life, it’s clear that they are all changing and more delicate than I had imagined.

Joshua tree at Joshua Tree National Park

a harsh ecosystem

Posted in ecosystems, landscape photography, planting, Uncategorized Tagged , , , |

World View From a Sweet Potato

sweet potato


I’m a fan of Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times op ed columnist. I like his insights into human rights issues. He writes with the authority of one who has lived in the field and he does so with courage, caution, a straight-forward style and usually with a sense of urgency.

Kristof has been called “the moral conscience of our generation of journalists.” Bill Clinton said in 2009, “There is no one in journalism, anywhere in the United States at least, who has done anything like the work he has done to figure out how poor people are actually living around the world, and what their potential is….So every American citizen who cares about this should be profoundly grateful that someone in our press establishment cares enough about this to haul himself all around the world to figure out what’s going on…”

Somehow I missed his Thanksgiving column last year. I came across it two weeks ago while doing some research on, of all things, the sweet potato. Kristof begins by promising “a happy column about hunger” and concludes with a solution to starvation in Africa based on the sweet potato. It is the middle of Bless the Orange Sweet Potato that nearly made me choke on my organic coffee.

Although Kristof says that “there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical,” his solution is biofortification, including genetic engineering that will create such products as “golden rice” using genetic material from daffodils and corn. Kristof’s skepticism seems to come more from his impatience with the resistance he’s seen in Europe to “scientific tinkering with crops” than concerns about the possible catastrophic results from the “new seeds.”

I don’t really know the biology behind any of this well enough to counter the urgency in Kristof’s writing. He offers a bright picture in a bleak world if he and Monsanto are correct. He says, “These new seeds may finally help end the scourge of starvation in this century, on our watch.” Others feel that this same urgency may lead to irrevocable genetic damage, also done on our watch.

As I plant my sweet potato slips this spring I’ll have a vivid reminder of this issue. Do I blindly continue hostility towards genetic engineering only to “make it harder to save children from blindness and death?” It’s difficult to argue with Kristof’s heart. I just hope science doesn’t betray him and all of us. -Bill

Posted in nutrition, seeds, sweet potatoes, Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , , , |

Season’s Greetings to All


Posted in black & white photography, portraits Tagged , , , |

Looking Back… and Forward


This is the time of year I should be embarrassed about the condition of my garden. The photo above illustrates a very small slice of my garden’s decline. Old, saggy, spotted and rotting tomatoes don’t have the happy face these Cherry Romas had a month ago when I was gathering them by the bucket full for hopeful friends. Except for a few ripe tomatoes, those that remain are either slime or green.

Despite the bleak look, there are still some positive things about my garden right now. My Kentucky Wonder pole beans are right where I want them. Most of the pods are dry – just right for picking for this winter’s baked beans and for seeding next year’s garden. My Sweet Dumpling winter squash are ready to harvest. I pick a few ripe cherry tomatoes and eat them where I stand then pull the plant out for burning. Broccoli is thriving in the much cooler weather. Peppers red & green slowly ripen. My marigolds planted to discourage mosquitoes and attract lady bugs stand proudly and full of blossoms.

As I transition this blog back to a more photo-centric season, please know that I continue to plan for next year’s garden. Do come back now and again.

fallen tomatoes gathered today

Posted in autumn, decay and compost, seeds Tagged , , , , , |


The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

-Emily Dickinson


Posted in autumn, black & white photography, decay and compost, landscape photography, plant diseases, pumpkins, Uncategorized Tagged , , |

Harvest For the Future

samples selected for seed saving


It seems wise – and maybe genetically prudent – that I should use the best samples from my harvest for saving seed. I try to find the most robust plant and its fruits for this task. The tomatoes that seem to resist cracking and disease and yet taste the best are selected. The least alien-shaped green peppers with the best taste are my “targets” for seed saving. Other qualifiers for my future harvests include:

• samples with the best color
• early fruits
• large fruits but not gigantic samples
• best taste trumps most other considerations

This is the first time in my gardening season that I think seriously about the next year. It’s just part of the cycle of the gardener’s life.

Anyone needing some information on saving seeds would do well to visit Seed Savers Exchange.

As a result of some friends on the Seed Savers Forum I am revising this post to add some information that I had forgotten and, in some cases, just didn’t know.

Dreyadin from the SSE Forum reminded me that it’s important to make an effort to keep the characteristics of a strain true to type. In other words, it would be counter productive to pick atypical samples such as those that may be very large, oddly-shaped, or extremely early or late. You more than likely originally picked seeds that produce fruits you like. There’s no reason to try to change them.

He further says, “Just keeping an eye out that you are selecting from healthy plants also is a factor.. in a situation where the plant may be effected one year, and if you have limited recourse.. there are a few methods to help try to decontaminate the seed.. but the result is usually a serious decrease in percentage of viable seeds left over.” Also, ” (It’s) always good to make sure you really clean equipment between batches just in case. Better safe than sorry.”

Finally, Dreyadin brings up a point that my photo seems to contradict. He says, “Just in the case of some peppers you use at the green stage.. you want those to fully ripen before collecting seed from them.” The photo does not completely represent vegetables selected for seed saving. My pole beans and green peppers are way too green for this purpose. Also, the two smaller yellow crook-neck squash are for eating while the larger almost-a-gourd one has mature seeds. I just thought the pole beans looked nicer in the photo than the brown ones I have been using for seed saving.

I use a fermentation process to rid my tomato seeds of pathogens. Dreyadin points to some more drastic means of doing this. He says, “The other methods to try to get rid of some of the more harsh pathogens are hot water treatment… bleach treatment.. and TSP (trisodium phosphate) treatment to name a few. They are all harsh.. the hot water one is the least toxic.. but regardless.. big loss in viability. Those are used in attempts to try to get rid of some of the diseases that get past the gel.. but Tobacco Mosiac Virus.. yer pretty much screwed as it gets right into the embryo.”

Again, thanks Dreyadin.

The revision also begs an additional photo…

Kentucky Wonder pole beans ready for saving

Posted in plant diseases, seeds, tomatoes Tagged , , , , |

A-Mazing Garden


My grandson knows how to have fun. Pulling weeds and watering are not on Noah’s fun list. Besides, he’s too young for that sort of thing.

His sense of wonder makes him love to follow the paths between my garden’s rows. They’ve grown together enough to no longer resemble the two strips of lawn they were in spring. To Noah it must look like a wonderland of vines, enormous leaves and exotic vegetation that creates a maze-like path. Dodging tomatoes, prickly squash leaves and shiny peppers he twists around one obstacle after another. He carefully protects himself from threatening tendrils with an out-thrust elbow. Then he reverses it or decides to make the return trip down the next strip.

I don’t know what type of temperament turns a weedy, overgrown garden into a playground but I like Noah’s outlook on life.

Posted in portraits, Uncategorized Tagged , |