Category Archives: planting

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.

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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

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Brushing My Tomatoes’ Teeth

Brandywine (Sudduth's Strain) tomato

There are a lot of stages of growth in a garden. Waiting for seeds to germinate, seeing the first “true” leaves, and finding the first squash blossom are landmarks I look forward to each year. Probably my favorite is finding the first tomato.

I have been reading recently on the Seed Savers Exchange forum that the Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) variety has some, well… difficulties. Half of my tomatoes are – you guessed it – Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain). Posters have been using words like “temperamental” and “difficult” regarding this variety. One even called it “legendarily temperamental.” One poster suggested using an electric toothbrush a couple of times a day to vibrate the flower clusters. This is “to allow the pollen to fall from the anthers onto the stigma.”

So I’m to brush my tomato plants’ “teeth” two times a day, huh. Gosh, I hope they don’t need flossing. It is actually nice to know that there are ways to pollinate plants when ideal weather conditions or lack of bees cause fruit to not set. This situation could certainly be encountered by both greenhouse and high-rise patio gardeners. Although tomatoes are essentially self pollinating, some varieties may need a little help. I really recommend the knowledgeable people on the Seed Savers and Organic Gardening forums

I’m happy to report that my tomato plants seem to have produced tomatoes without the toothbrush routine. This weekend I came upon first tomatoes of each of the three varieties I grew.

As usual, I’d welcome any stories about your gardens.

** an update from one of my Seed Savers forum friends regarding the tomato pictured above – “…as is very typical with Brandywine Sudduth’s and other varieties of that era, you can see that that’s 2 merged blossoms. You’ve got a double! That could produce a VERY large tomato.”

Cherry Roma tomato

Red Brandywine tomato

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Jesse’s Brooklyn Garden Begins!

I think I’m more excited about Jesse’s garden this year than my own. I’m always curious as to not only what he will plant but how he will plant it. He has very little space in his urban setting but it doesn’t stop him from thinking big.

Large cities are notorious for their dismissive views on recycling programs. I know this is true for Chicago and Jesse tells me that it is the same in NYC. Our “city” kids – one in Chicago, one in San Francisco and Jesse in NY have always found ways to recycle and be a little more responsible about these things than their respective cities generally care about. (One exception would be San Francisco.) Jesse likes to find recycled containers for his garden.

This past weekend Jesse spent some time assembling his garden. Using compostable egg crates rather than peat pots as containers for planting his seeds he was able to re-use what would have gone directly into the garbage. I’ve warned him that these can work well but need some holes in the bottom to aid root growth before transplanting. The egg-crate planters were placed into Jesse’s darkroom trays (yes, he’s a photographer too) to hold water for bottom watering and for ease of moving them around. The photos below show his seeds before they were pushed into the seed-starting mix.

Jesse also used recycled bits of cardboard to label his delicata, heirloom tomato, habañeros, sweet dumpling winter squash and pumpkin seeds. He has no idea what variety of tomatoes they are. They were labeled “heirloom tomatoes” at a local market and he described them as “delicious.” I like his adventuresome spirit.

As you can see below, Jesse is proactively recycling. He bought eggs so he’d have the crates which necessitated his having to find a (recycled) container for the eggs! And of course, those are old film containers holding his seeds. Atta boy, Jesse.

I’m sure we’ll hear from Jesse occasionally about his garden’s progress. I’d love to hear from others who are experimenting with “urban planting.”


seeds on seed-starting mix

seeds and seed containers

recycled garden

eggs new home

Also posted in experiments, Jesse's Brooklyn garden, pumpkins, seeds, tomatoes, urban gardens

Planting Time?

Planting time can sneak up on you. If you simply look out the window and wait until you see robins pulling up worms and see some daffodils to plant your garden you can miss a lot of the fun – and cost savings – of planting inside.

It’s not at all early to begin planting, depending on where you are and what you are planting. Indoor planting can begin right now for things like peppers which are slow to get started. Tomatoes could be planted at the same time but usually a little later. I like to plant some marigolds so they’re almost ready to bloom when I put them in the ground.

I’ve come upon a pretty handy and quite reliable source that serves as a good reminder of what to plant when. This is the 2010 Best Planting Dates for Seeds from the Old Farmer’s Almanac. All you need to do is to fill in your town or zip code and information based on average last frost date is there for most things you might wish to plant. There is even a separate date listed as “Moon-favorable Dates.” Having lived on the ocean I am aware of the power of the moon to change tides so I guess it could have some effect on plants. I haven’t paid much attention to this myself.

So what are you planting? Just shoot me a comment (below) and let me know. Should I experiment with comparing “Moon-favorable Dates” plantings with regular dates?
Just a little update on this post…
“Pogo,” one of the knowledgeable people on the Organic Gardening forum reacted wisely to my mention of the Best Planting Dates for Seeds information. She said, “…All these predictors are based on probability. Generally it isn’t a date, but a range with a certain probability of freezing or not. I like this map (from NOAA) because it gives the probability of both frost (32) and freeze (28). How far you push the dates just depends on how much risk you want to take.”

Even in a very small area that date can be different depending on if you are on the north side of a mountain or the south side; if you are right on the shore or on a nearby rise overlooking that same spot. The date for a valley can be different than the date for the adjoining two rises.

Your own records for YOUR location are the best yet not perfect when it comes to determining the date of the last frost for you.


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Seeds of Hope

The snow has pretty much worn out its welcome as far as I am concerned but I came upon something interesting today. In the photo below you can see a milkweed seed covered in snow. As cold & snowy as it is, this is a wonderful reminder that there will be small flocks of Monarch butterflies coming this summer. Sometimes hope comes in small, hidden packages.


milkweed seed

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“Huge Pumpkins up to 70″ Around!”

My seeds from Seed Savers Exchange


Last year’s successes have emboldened me enough to expand the garden. For the first time I’ve saved some seeds from last year to plant this year. Jesse brought some seeds from Brooklyn at Christmas that I’m anxious to plant and today I got some pumpkin seeds that will give me “huge pumpkins, up to 70″ around!”

I’ve taken a different approach to seed selection. Last year I picked up seeds on sale from Ace and Home Depot. This year I’ve done that again but I’ve also investigated some of the seed companies that specialize in heirloom and rare varieties. I have also taken a look at some of the companies that sell primarily to commercial producers. Those companies that maintain their own test lots and labs and trial grounds and whose germination rates exceed federal standards are the places I want to shop for seeds. Although there are others, I’ve taken a close look at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Stokes Seeds Ltd. and Parks Seed Company which has a wonderful Gardeners Handbook.

This year my favorite resource for seeds is the Seed Savers Exchange. This is a non-profit organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds. It is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. They have 23 acres of certified organic preservation gardens. Their site itself contains a wealth of information on all aspects of gardening as well as seed saving and trading. Even their seed packets have instructions for seed saving . The Seed Savers Exchange is the source of the seeds photographed above.

Let me know if you’ve come upon a favorite seed source.

And yes, I know I already used this photo.

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Welcome… or Welcome Back!

The focus of our blog – photo-synthesis …a photographer tries to garden – will again turn to the garden – mine and yours. We go from the Black Eyed Peas to snow peas. This will never be a “how to do it”  look at anything but rather a “let’s try this thing together and see what happens” experiment.

Those who followed last years version understand that I am relying on help from friends near and far, novices and experts. Yes, we actually depend on information from you for our food!

Again my camera will never be far from me to document the process, the discoveries and the experiments.

I am hoping to include some guest writers this time so don’t be shy about wanting to be included. Just send me an e-mail and let me know what you have in mind. I also intend to invite a couple of knowledgeable gardeners to help us out.

Thanks for taking a look.



the old greenhouse

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