Search This Blog


24 May, 2016

June Gloom Brings On Powdery Mildew...

Ah, June.

Oftentimes we refer to June Gloom – it's part and parcel of our climate. This year we've had the May Malaise and the April Anguish. Will June forego its gloom and set us free?

Somehow, I doubt it.

June Gloom is a phenomenon of our climate. Historically, June is an overcast month with little breeze.  It is hot enough, and lacks sufficient air movement and hard direct sunlight, to foster the growth of fungi on the leaves of your plant.  And once given the chance, the fungi doesn't stop at just making them ugly; it kills them.

The problem is not just the lack of sunlight from the morning cloud cover. Powdery mildew, which is a common name for many different kinds of fungi (each plant species has at least one fungi which are called “powdery mildew” - some lucky plants have more than one!) does not need moisture to live but does survive in heat – of which we have plenty. We have exacerbated this problem by walling our gardens off from neighbors with walls allowing the air in our gardens to remain stagnant. The price we pay to gain a little privacy in our crushing metropolis.

" I have this white stuff on the leaves of my plant..." 
When someone says, “I have this white stuff on the leaves of my plant...” It's probably powdery mildew. The first thing I do is think of the recent weather and the second thing I do is ask, “Is your garden enclosed by a wall?” Not always, but more often than not, the answer is yes. Some folks just live in an air pocket that fosters the mildew – others may have trees shading the plant in the sunniest part of the day - but all of us are faced with it. All the squashes, melons, cucumbers and even other plants can get powdery mildew.

My grandfather used sulfur to combat most fungi. It's simple and it's not very toxic. However, sulfur and squash family members (including, melons, cucumbers, zucchini – all those big leaved climbers) are stressed by sulfur and most authorities discourage sulfur on those plants.

Once your plants have it, cut severely affected leaves from the plant. If is is so bad you are removing too much of the plant to produce a crop, toss the whole plant. If you have it now, you have time to even buy fresh seeds and start over. This is what I do – except for winter (hard rind) squashes. Those I take away the most offending leaves only and leave the rest and try to nurse the plant along till the squash is ripened. I've almost always been successful.

The first action you might try is to wash it off with a hard stream of water - I know it seems counter-intuitive, but if you can wash the spores off the leaves, you may well forestall a more devastating infestation.

Some folks have reported good control using 10% milk in water (1 cup milk; 9 cups water, for example – any amount milk with 9 times of the same amount of water) sprayed to cover.

Cornmeal has been effective as well. 1 cup of cornmeal in a muslin bag, left 24 hours in a gallon of water can be sprayed or splashed over affected plants. If you choose to spray something, do it as soon as you can.  Every day the powdery mildew stays, it becomes harder to avoid damage. 

There are those who used baking soda, but I don't like these kitchen recipes as they are NOT benign in the soil. They can change the soil and kill the critters in the soil, so I leave them be. (The concept of using vinegar in the garden appalls me as it is very harmful to soil critters!)

If you cut off infected leaves, do not try to compost them. Your compost will not probably kill the fungus and you'll only reinfect future gardens with i

NO fungus is worth poisoning your plants or the critters in the ground.  We will all survive even if the squash looks like hell.  It's OK.  I've looked like hell some days and no one dumped me with sulfur or worse.

Thank God...

20 May, 2016

GMOs: A Failed Concept

The problem we’re facing, however, is not about lack of sustainable solutions. The problem is that Big 6 pesticide companies like Monsanto — supported by USDA and backed by the U.S. government's export-driven trade agenda — have built up an agricultural economic system that puts multinational corporations' profits above people's well-being, and locks farmers into these unsustainable practices. – Marcia Ishii-Eiteman Apr 16, 2015  in GroundTruth (

It's tough these days to be against genetic engineering of our food. Articles in Slate and The New Yorker make us look like looney fringe nut cases and the House of Representatives voted by a large margin to ban labeling of foods that have genetically altered ingredients in them. It's bleak. Science, they tell us, is against us and we are just paranoids.

Mesquite beans - mesquite may become an important food crop
in the coming years if Global Climate Change continues to manifest.
Mesquite can take very cold and very hot temperatures and still produce
a crop which is ground into a very nutritious (and delicious) flour.
A lot of what we are reading about the success of GMO crops is paid for by the biotechies themselves pushing this stuff. When you get a study that proves them wrong, they go after that researcher, not by refuting the research, but by slandering the researcher and attempting to ruin his or her career. It takes more guts than most people have to see their careers ruined and their name dragged through the mud, ergo, not much research disparaging genetic alteration gets very far along. (On a good note, recently the French scientist, Serillini, won a defamation lawsuit against Monsanto for their slander campaign against him.)  

Thank God, in recent months, glyphosate has come under scrutiny. This is a shining chance to thwart at least that segment of genetic engineering. Not only is it a suspected human carcinogen, as declared by the World Health Organization, but reportedly appearing in such benign places as mothers' breast milk as reported by Moms Across America.  They noted that their sample of women was aware of GMOs and had worked for some time to avoid GMOs. Of course, the herbicide has been used to dry out grains like wheat (which s not commercially genetically altered) after harvesting, so simply avoiding GMOs will not stop glyphosate in your diet. In addition, testing showed considerably more glyphosate in the mothers' urine samples – way over what was found in the urine of European mothers in a study conducted in 2013. Now several counter studies to the breast milk study have responded indicating that the MAA study was wrong, but of course, Monsanto can buy (and has bought) favorable test results in the past, so who to believe? When there is any question about research, I like to trust those who aren't benefiting financially from the results, but who is that? Please note the MAA study is only preliminary but the World Health Organization's findings have got to be accorded some significant weight.  

We have yet to know how ten organic wines produced in CA got significant amounts of glyphosate in them, but that has been all over the news lately.  Another example, I think, of the idiocy of claiming that GMO agriculture and non-GMO agriculture can co-exist. 

Those of us familiar with the lying nature of Monsanto are not surprised that the biotech giant has lied (and continues to lie) about glyphosate, the main ingredient in their popular Round Up weed killer. Remember they told us it was not only benign once in the soil, but also that it did not persist in nature; both claims are obviously incorrect. Did they somehow just overlook these facts or did they consciously lie about them? Take your pick, with Monsanto's track record on DDT, PCBs and their lies about those and other products, I'll believe the latter. If corporations are people, Monsanto should be placed on a lie detector.

But honestly, we do not need to argue these facts with all the biotech apologists and paid off cronies. We have a bigger truth that they cannot assail.

GMOs will court inevitable starvation in those countries that use them as the primary source of their food...

That is the simple honest truth.

We can prove that we have far fewer varieties of plants on our store shelves today thanks to the GMO boom and it will only get worse. It is this loss of genetic diversity that will be the cause of famine. Instead of having a robust variety of different kinds of the same produce, there are only a few genetically altered varieties to work with. Our acres and acres of corn are all planted with very similar genetic varieties. This means a pathogen that can attack one field, can attack many fields and suddenly you have a destroyed corn (or soy or whatever) crop. Prices go up – poorer folks suffer disproportionately, hunger in America.

To the labs creating these 'new' varieties in their labs, this is seen as a boon. After all, they can find the flaw in the pathogen and GMO a new variety that resists it and having more products to sell. But in truth, it is only a new marketing gimmick – a new variety every year making investors and the company richer.  But each new variety is not really a new variety in the whole - it has one chromosome turned off - or on - and such changes in a plant's genetic make-up is just as easy for the pathogen to overcome.

Conventional breeding would breed a different way. First off, we'd have many varieties in the field and some would be resistant and would find more people planting it next year. Conventional breeders would attack the problem in a different way. Genetic alterations of a crop operate in a specific way called “vertical” breeding – one trait is changed for the crop to survive. The one gene variation is easy for a given pathogen to circumvent. Conventional breeding happens “horizontally” and is much harder to thwart by a given pathogen. These are generalizations and there are exceptions, but generalizations tend to become generalizations because they are more often than not (and by a margin) true.

This was the genesis of the Irish Potato Famine. The blight attacked the two kinds, genetically similar, of potatoes grown in Ireland and these potatoes were the only food that most of the Irish peasants had to depend on. (Before someone calls to me task for oversimplifying it, I know the “God sent the blight but English brought the famine” but this is an article on crop diversity, so please forgive me this time. The same thing could happen here, in the US in a heartbeat. We are one of the most food insecure societies on earth because of our current dependence on genetic engineering. This will only get worse if Congress continues to take the biotech money and biotech lies and allow our health, our environment's health and our food diversity to continue to deteriorate at the alarming rate it is currently.  

Mind you, this is only one of many reasons we need to move away from the genetic engineering option to the traditional way of breeding new plants and also move away from the massive amounts of pesticides we use to grow our food.  

The end game of this is too big to loose!  If we do not save our varieties of seeds and continue the tradition of saving our seeds from the big bullies, we will find our food supply locked up by the corporations and then what do we have?  We all wish to eat.  

Let it be healthy food, not patented and laced with poison or contaminated with genetic engineering. 


01 January, 2016

Red Is The Color of My True Love's Leaves!

Purple Kale - the colder it gets, the prettier
(and tastier!) it becomes! 

We are feeling purple in The Learning Garden these days!  

Starting on the 2nd of Janurary, we present the  Growing Food in Southern California class with the Gardenmaster.  Is one of your resolutions to make your garden more productive, and more satisfying for you?  Are you hoping to learn more about sustainability?  Get yourself on over here Saturday morning for this class at 10:00.  No need for an RSVP - we have the class regardless and there is always a theme.  This month, we hope that everyone has a desire to grow more food, so we'll address your needs, your questions specifically so you are on the right track from Day Two!  

A spiffed up Gardenmaster!
Don't be fooled, he still has dirt under his nails.
Attendees this month will get a baby PURPLE artichoke plant from a new variety being bred here locally, called Winetka Purple.  We're helping to make the variety become stable (the last part of creating a new strain of vegetable), which means, these plants are triply exciting to grow - you get to eat some, you get to watch some of them bloom (wow!) and then save seeds from those that look like we want them to look like.  It will be a fun and learning experience for everyone.

Later on in the month - as an added bonus, the Seed Library of Los Angeles has their first meeting of the year on January 16th, Craig Ruggless, the man who created Winnetka Purple Artichokes will tell us how he did it and what is left to be done.  These chokes are beautiful and have lots of the food parts we are all so fond of.  Especially if you got some of our seedlings on January 2nd, you really will want to be here on the 16th to hear the whole story!  

Make plans to be a part of these two events this month!  

January 2 - 10:00 to Noon, $20 at the gate or PayPal to - discounts for prepaying for five classes (one free).  

January 16 - 2:30 PM the monthly meeting of the Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA) - free to attend - to join and check out seeds, $10 for your lifetime.  

Get your growing off right in 2016!  Grow some of your own food!


16 December, 2015

Ballona Wetlands In Peril

This image appeared in my Facebook newsfeed while we waited to speak
opposing the building of yet another hotel, damning the little wetland
we have left in Los Angeles County to destruction. I would like to credit the artist,
but I don't have that information. 
Just another hotel.  We have a few already in Los Angeles, but yesterday, the County Board of Supervisors voted to build yet another hotel.

This time, they are building it in one of the few remaining wetlands in this county; the one with the easiest access to city schools for field trips to a truly natural environment. Ballona Wetlands is a small parcel, but because of it's unique position with a freshwater marshland up against a saline marshland, it is home to an astonishing diversity of wildlife that is the pleasure of so many Angelenos in our concreted city (and county).  

The fight will go to the courts, and now Ballona Institute has an appeal for money to bring the fight to the courts. So often we are led by newpapers and other news sources to see these as fights of one endangered species against human activity and who needs the 'black livered whosamawatchacallit' anyway?  That's a false dichotomy which divides humans and obfuscates the reality of our choices.   But it's not a valid argument. It is not 'us against them.'  It is us against ourselves to find a better way to do things, a better place to build things, a better world for all inhabitants.  

Our nation and our state have passed laws that recognize the health of our planet is wholly dependent upon diversity and the inclusion of all species in our world to maintain the processes of the planet.  Wetlands, especially coastal wetlands like Ballona, are homes for an amazing number of species that depend on this unique environment.  In fact, while wetlands account for a very small portion of the earth's ecosystem acreage, they account for the miraculous number of species that survive there.  

Here's a photo of a portion of the Marina Marsh & Meadow,
part of the historical Ballona Wetlands.
Feeding grounds for Herons, Egrets and Songbirds.
This is yet another glaringly flawed project that destroys OUR quality of life.  The hotel will add more congestion to an already frustratingly difficult commute. The loss of birds that use this on their commute from North to South and back again will leave our skies and our hears more dark. Our community, as a whole, much poorer than before.  The destruction of the wetlands will be a stain on this generation of Angelenos.  We must not let it happen.  Please help us protect the environment; that would be the right thing for "Wise, wise man," the literal translation for Homo sapiens sapiens.


14 December, 2015

"Close to" Grandpa's Cornbread - A Family Tradition

Making cornbread has been very important to me. As a child, often times Grandpa, my mother's father, Jacob Anderson, would make cornbread on cold evenings. We ate it, as we ate many things, with milk and sugar over it and maybe some chunks of Cheddar cheese and bologna to round out the fare. It was simple and humble. He let me help in stirring the cornmeal up and taught me how all went together.  As soon as I turned 18 I forgot all that, after all, I was going to leave all that 'farmer' stuff behind.

Fast forward.

In my thirties, I suddenly began to want to recreate that cornbread of my youth. The ingredients were hazy, but how it looked, how it tasted remained vivid. I searched out recipes and had the good sense to buy a cast iron skillet and season it properly. I searched all over for recipes – most of them had additives that would have offended my English/Irish heritage – like jalapenos and spices. We ate very plainly.

Finally, I hit on a simple recipe that was very close to the taste and texture I remembered and with an attention to detail that would aghast most of my close companions (I'm not known as a "detail man"), I worked it out. I learned that ingredients were only a small part of making a good cornbread.

1 c cornmeal
1 c flour
3 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 each egg
1 c milk
¼ c melted butter

First, the cast iron is essential. Secondly, using any oil but butter is a no-no. The two are necessary for the process and your good results are in the processes.

This cast iron pan has seen a lot of cornbread
I'm eating some of this one when I finish this post.
Add the butter to the skillet. Turn on the oven for 400º place the pan with butter in it into the oven as it warms. Having a hot skillet to start the cornbread is very important. Now combine all the dry ingredients, the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, a pinch of salt and sugar. Mix well.

When the butter is melted, remove from the oven and add the melted butter to the dry ingredients, scraping as much of the melted butter from the pan as you can quickly do. At this point, everything rests on getting the mixed batter into the pan and into the oven as quickly as possible. Once the dry ingredients are moist, they begin to interact chemically with one another and if you want a light and fluffy cornbread, you cannot waste any time in this phase. 

I usually add the milk before the egg simply because I am afraid of solidifying any part of the egg with the hot oil  It's never happened, but somehow I remain afraid of it.  Mix all together until evenly moist, pour back into the hot pan and get it into the oven for 30 minutes at 400º F. Allow to cool before cutting and enjoy it, however you eat your cornbread.

So, ingredients aside, use a hot pan to pour the batter into, and once you have added moisture to the dry ingredients, working quickly is the most important part of making a good cornbread.  I hope you enjoy this once in a while.  

Maybe with hunks of Cheddar and bologna.  


07 December, 2015

Introduction to Sequestering Carbon In The Soil For Gardeners

Prosopis velutina - a mesquite from Sonoran Arizona
probably is one of the plants of our future
We already know that the level of carbon in the atmosphere is beyond acceptable levels. No agreement in France or anywhere else is going to reduce the level of carbon to levels that are necessary for the human species to survive without some pretty radical changes in our relationships with the planet and our human activities.

On the global level, governments are merely trying to cope with mitigating the damage we've caused and the resultant damage humans will suffer in turn. We already know about acidification of our oceans and the indication that the ocean's temperature increase of only .3ºF has started release of plumes of methane – another greenhouse gas – from the ocean floor. If this loop becomes established it could mean that NOTHING humankind can do to prevent collapse of our world's ecosystem. I'm not trying to paint a more bleak picture than there is already. It is pretty scary.

As usual, with these global environmental problems, individuals feel powerless to make substantial changes that can influence the outcomes. In this case, farmers can play a significant role and gardeners can also contribute. The way I advocate we garden already sequesters carbon in the soil and now we know how to even more effectively sequester carbon by combining parts of the garden that were formerly segregated and to interplant annuals with perennials. Simply using appropriate actions in our farming and gardening, we can emphasize carbon sequestration in the soil. It is a win/win propostion.

An important vehicle for moving carbon into soil is root, or mycorrhizal, fungi, which govern the give-and-take between plants and soil. According to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, plants with mycorrhizal connections can transfer up to 15 percent more carbon to soil than their non-mycorrhizal counterparts. The most common mycorrhizal fungi are marked by threadlike filaments called hyphae that extend the reach of a plant, increasing access to nutrients and water. These hyphae are coated with a sticky substance called glomalin, discovered only in 1996, which is instrumental in soil structure and carbon storage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises land managers to protect glomalin by minimizing tillage and chemical inputs and using cover crops to keep living roots in the soil.  Yale University Research Report, Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?

Research suggests that it is more beneficial to have plants with an active mycorrhizal community. This aligns with the very propositions I have been proposing for over 15 years. The Yale report mentions that pesticides and fertilizers interrupt the biological cycle and the presence of the mycorrhizae, which is prerequisite for sequestering carbon in the soil.

The following gardening practices are included:
  • Conservation tillage – minimize or eliminate manipulation of the soil for food production. Including leaving crop residues on the soil surface. Reduces soil erosion and improves water use efficiency and increases carbon concentrations in the top soil. Avoids disruption to the mycorrhiza in the soil and provides channels for water to penetrate more deeply in the soils.
  • Cover cropping – use of crops such as clover, alfalfa and small grains for soil protection and improvement between seasons of growing food. Cover crops enhance the soil structure and add organic matter to the soil making it better for carbon sequestration.
  • Crop rotation – by rotating crops in succession in the same area, we mimic the diversity of natural ecosystems more closely. How effective this is, however is related to the crops involved and the amount of time devoted to each one. (Millet is shallow rooted and is less efficacious than the same amount of time devoted to alfalfa which has a massive root structure.)
  • Zero use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides – already noted as detrimental to mycorrhiza/soil relationships – all of these are petroleum products that kill off the mycorrhiza in the soil and ruin exactly what you are trying to build. Besides, we will need to wean ourselves off petroleum anyway, might as well start now learning how to do without the stuff. Once you accept NOT using these items, it doesn't take long for one to learn how to live without them and soon you see how superfluous they were all along.
  • Mulching – placing organic matter over the soil and allowing it to breakdown without disturbing the process sequesters carbon. This is what creates the bases of all you want to achieve. Don't scrimp.
  • Growing perennial crops – often with interspersed annual crops where practical, leaving the detritus on the soil between growing seasons. Perennial crops lend themselves to soil sequestration better than annual crops and survive untoward weather fluctuations on a seasonal basis without dying. Their mere presence makes cultivation more difficult and ensures a limited disturbance of the soil.

Keeping in mind those practices, let's concentrate on perennial crops as they afford the easiest effort to go with no-till and will increase the carbon in the soil with very little effort on our part.
Perennial crops include a wide variety of different crops and more are coming online all the time.

Trees – nut and fruit trees are the first that come to mind. Plant a tree and, all things being equal, you have food production for many years to come – even decades. In our area, apple, almond, apricot, avocado, citrus, figs, peaches, pears (only a few varieties work here), persimmon, pomegranates, nectarines, and others are easy, requiring only a little pruning attention annually and certainly no plowing. Clover and other ground cover crops grown in between your trees and other perennials will enhance your soil and increase the sequestration of carbon.

There are many shrubs and similar plant forms that are wonderful for sequestration.

Beans – some of the climbing beans are really perennials – like Christmas Lima, Scarlet and other runner beans
Bramble berries
Blue Berries
Cactus – certain varieties
Jerusalem artichoke
Kiwi fruits
Onions (bunching or walking onions)
Wheat – perennial types

There are several perennial varieties of wheat and I have heard of perennial varieties of other grains as well. These are going to be quite important in the our very near future. I would encourage everyone to keep an eye out for them and eagerly try growing and using them. I do not believe this list is exhaustive. Keep your eyes open for other opportunities to plant food once and harvest over and over again.

What I am expressing is very much like the concept of the 'food forest' found in permaculture and in many other approaches to gardening. Other terms that might be encountered include Agroforestry or Woody Perennial Polycultures. These are essentially the same practice varying only in the fine print.
Furthermore, with these no-till techniques, we are just starting to transition to more permanent groupings of ever-bearing, perennial food plant groupings that include natural windrows, water harvesting/filtration and wildlife habitats – in addition to feeding the world.

The most important point is to leave the ground as little disturbed as possible. Try to avoid that in all your gardening activities of planting, weeding and harvesting. Whatever causes the soil the least manipulation, this is the goal to strive for.

This style of gardening also encourages beneficial insects, pollinators and is, of course, wholly organic. The food grown will have an overall better nutrition and will be less work. It will, of course, probably be less “neat” in the modern way of thinking, but that is merely a human construct. There are different levels of 'neatness' that are more important!


02 December, 2015

Plant Propagation for Gardeners Starts in January

No, I am not smoking - I have a part of a plant
in my mouth to keep it moist before grafting.

It seems amazing that it's already time to think about making new plants from old, but here we are looking at Winter Quarter for 2016.  I teach about four different courses for UCLA Extension and of all the classes I teach, the one I enjoy the most, is Plant Propagation.  

In the first place, I have always been a seed starter and now the whole thing with seeds has become so important to me in so many different ways, it is a joy to share these wonderful living pieces, and their amazing abilities and significance.  The mystery of starting plants from seeds is dispelled and we learn to unlock their secrets.  

There are many other ways to make new plants that are very easy to do once you know the why and the how.  We cover that as well.  And it's really cool when you can make six new rose bushes in a few minutes (and waiting a few months!).  

More than all else, though, for me, is grafting.  I love grafting and there is a story I tell about getting hooked into grafting.  It was a very unusual graft you won't see very often. I have lived for the opportunity to try it and if all goes according to my plans, we will get to do in this edition of Plant Propagation.  I have never had this chance before and may never have again - so this is a once in a lifetime opportunity!  

This is the book on grafting.  Unlike all the more modern, pretty picture books, this one tells you about every single kind of graft for every single purpose possible!  An amazingly thorough and comprehensive book, it has no equal - none that come close.  It has been around, in one form or another, since the 1800's. Out of print as of 2003, I begged Chelsea Green Publishing to bring this book back and they did!  I have all the other books, you can see them if you wish, but spend your money on this and you will thank me for it.  

If you don't already have a knife and a pair of pruners, don't buy any until you've been through the first lecture of this course - we'll talk about the different knives and pruners and you can put your hands on them and see how each feels to you. 

The other book I use in this course is this one.  It is not a particularly fascinating read, but it has these charts you can refer to whenever confronted with a plant to propagate and no data on how it's done.  A good reference book on your shelf if you do any amount of propagation.

This class is a great deal of fun for everyone and a learning experience unlike most classes these days:  you get the data you need in one minute and the next minute you are applying that data to a living plant and changing it's life! 

These are skills that were common among a majority of the people of the world just a generation or two ago, but now, only a select few who know this material and can put it to use! It is really satisfying and magical when you become one of the ones in the know!

Classes meet at The Learning Garden, on the campus of Venice High School where we have abundant material to work with .  The class is  sessions long, meeting on Sundays, 1 to 5:00 PM, starting in January on the 10th.  

There is still some space left - sign up while you can!  Hey, what a great Christmas present - for yourself even!  Register through UCLA Extension here.