Category Archives: seeds

Using the “Obama Method”

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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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World View From a Sweet Potato

sweet potato

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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

Also posted in nutrition, sweet potatoes, Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , , , |

Looking Back… and Forward

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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

Also posted in autumn, decay and compost Tagged , , , , , |

Harvest For the Future

samples selected for seed saving

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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

Also posted in plant diseases, tomatoes Tagged , , , , |

First Blush

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The first hint of color came on just one of my cherry roma tomatoes this morning. I’ve been waiting since March 11 for this. Also, I had no idea that these plants were so large – just about seven feet tall so far. It’s those healthy SSE seeds, I guess.

Close inspection of the photo will show an aphid enjoying the view too. Is that drool coming out of his mouth? His buddy is in the next photo.

cherry roma tomato with a little color


aphid on tomato plant

Also posted in garden problems, insects, tomatoes Tagged , , , |

The Urban Garden

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With today’s post I want to introduce some gardens other than my own.
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Two of my “city kids” have gardens. Andy is in Pilsen in Chicago and Jesse is in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. They both have very limited space for growing vegetables but that doesn’t seem to stop them from rather ambitious plantings.

Andy says, “It’s really amazing just how much you can grow if you have enough room and decide to devote enough space for plants. I’ll be totally set with tomatoes for the summer with three plants. Oh wait, actually four plants.”

In addition to the tomatoes Andy is growing:

    • habañero and jalapeño plants from seeds Jesse gave him from last year’s plants

    • herbs: thyme and basil

    • a two-year old strawberry plant that hasn’t yet produced any fruit

    • mustard greens

    • a forget-me-not plant

It’s important to note that all of Andy’s plants are inside his second-floor apartment in front of his large north-facing windows.

Andy says, “I’ve been using Terracycle plant food, which is the worm crap fertilizer and it has worked pretty well. I also like how they recycle old plastic pop bottles for the packaging. I guess one thing about container gardening is that you have to keep up with watering because the dirt in containers dries out very quickly.”

Andy's Chicago garden

Jesse also has an amazing garden in a very small space. I asked him last evening if he could send me a photo. He answered this way,

    i saw your message and directly went and shot a photo of my tomato plants. there was supposed to be a storm tonight and this was just as the rain started coming down. those are in my bedroom window. they are growing strong, but they have not fruited yet. many brown leaves. perhaps i am not watering enough? i have a feeling this is it. nothing i have is in the ground and i think the water runs out quickly. it is also possibly very crowded. i have five large plants in my window. in my other bedroom/office/darkroom window i have my squashes and one other tomato plant. they are doing similar. the squashes have been fruiting slightly, but they have fallen off when they do :(. i will keep at it.

Jesse also notes that container plants need to be watered more often than ground plantings. I would also add that tomato plants are self-pollinating. That is, they don’t need insects to pollinate. They DO, however, need wind or something to make this happen. With indoor tomato and pepper plants you may need to tap the flowers gently to get them to pollinate. Some people use an electric toothbrush to make this happen! Since Jesse’s are on an outside window cage he should be fine. I do wonder a little about Andy’s north light for tomatoes! And… wait a minute… Did Jesse actually say that he has squash plants in his window?

Jesse's Brooklyn garden as the rain begins to fall

Also posted in Andy's Chicago garden, garden problems, Jesse's Brooklyn garden, tomatoes, Uncategorized, urban gardens Tagged , , , , , |

My Spring Break is Over

my grandson's cousin enjoys some baby carrots

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I made an obvious decision to forgo writing about and photographing my garden so far this year. It was a nice break that actually allowed me to enjoy getting my patch of green off and running without the encumbrances of camera and computer. Gardening is a messy business and I recall last year finding sudden inspiration while having muck up to my elbows. Dashing to the camera or computer in such a state required significant clean up which somewhat interrupted the flow of both the gardening AND the inspiration. This year when inspiration came I simply said, “Eh…” and returned to pulling weeds in the rain.

A friend on Facebook asked me “What do you have in your garden?” That’s my reason for returning to this.

I am experimenting with new varieties of mostly heirloom vegetables. This year I have purchased nearly all my seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage. With any luck this year’s garden will contain:

Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans from SSE – This is a wonderful old standby that I grew in my first garden in 1973. It’s the only bean I’ve ever grown. For next year I have my eyes on some Rattlesnake Snap beans. I don’t think I can resist “dark green pods that are streaked with purple – very fine flavor.” I like the name too.

Wisconsin Lakes Pepper from SSE – I’ve always grown California Wonder peppers but wanted an heirloom variety with seeds I can save for next year.

Jalapeño Peppers from Burpee – just one plant in a bucket from last year’s left over seeds

Summer Crookneck Squash from SSE – I love the nutty flavor.

Burpee’s Fordhook Zuccini – I used some leftover seeds from last year.

Sweet Dumpling Winter Squash – I got these seeds from my son who grew them in Brooklyn.

Purple Top White Globe Turnip from SSE – I’ll plant a fall crop of these too.

Scarlet Nantes Carrot from SSE – I’ve finally discovered that the secret to growing carrots is deeply-tilled ground.

Cherry Roma Tomato from SSE – These are replacing my Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes from the last two years. We’ll see…

Red Brandywine Tomato from SSE – These are replacing my Better Boy Hybrids from Burpee. Those were pretty good but I want to save my seeds for next year and I can’t do that with hybrids.

Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) Tomato from SSE -another experiment in flavor and seed saving

Calabrese Broccoli from SSE – I was looking for larger heads this year which I didn’t get from the DeCicco variety I grew last year.

Giant Noble Spinach from American Seed – These are left-over seeds from last year. My twenty-month old grandson likes this!

Lettuce a variety of nine lettuces including a Gourmet Blend from Burpee, Black-Seeded Simpson, Burpee Bibb, and Roman Emperor (romaine)

Mary Washington and Jersey Giant Asparagus from crowns I purchased at Home Depot

Please feel free to leave comments, questions, useful information or idle chat below. Maybe you can tell me what’s in your garden. There is more to come. I promise.

And thanks for asking, Mark.

Also posted in experiments, Jesse's Brooklyn garden, lettuce, tomatoes, Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , |

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.”

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seeds on seed-starting mix


seeds and seed containers


recycled garden


eggs new home

Also posted in experiments, Jesse's Brooklyn garden, planting, pumpkins, 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?
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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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Also posted in experiments, planting, tomatoes, Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , |

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.

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milkweed seed

Also posted in decay and compost, insects, landscape photography, planting Tagged , , , , |