30 December, 2017

Heirloom Seeds: A Purple Artichoke

I think the first seeds we got were the fifth generation, but don't quote me on that. This was a growing project started by Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms, a small farm in the San Fernando Valley which forms the Northern Edge of a good deal of Los Angeles. The project had very easy parameters – very clear and observable.

Think of the very best of the commercial artichokes – hold a picture of that choke in your mind. You will see a very large choke with tightly wrapped bracts and the tips of those bracts are not pointy without any spines of much note. Certainly none to fear.

If you have had the purple artichokes available in the markets, the difference is astonishing. Purple chokes have chokes that are 50% or so smaller than the green chokes, the bracts are pointy and possess a dangerous little needle on the tip of each bract and not enough purple to obfuscate the blood effusing from your wounded fingers.

Craig's brilliant idea was to get a purple choke with the same civilized attributes as the green choke. Then, life being what life is, he bought a farm in Vermont which I am led to understand is not a prime site for growing artichokes of any color. SLOLA was bequeathed a quantity of seed and some drying chokes so we could see what the “ideal” Winnetka Purple Artichoke should look like. And with the easily seen goal and perimeters the continued work with these chokes certainly was the perfect project for a fledgling seed library: Good for the chokes and a great teaching tool for the library.

Like I said, it was about the 5th generation that was bequeathed to us. In breeding parlance it would be known as “F5” - “F” standing for “filial. Many people took seed, but the only ones I know that were returned to be a part of the seed library came from members Joy Sun and Julie Mann. And each had a distinctive population with characteristics different from each other.

The Sun group plants were HUGE. We are talking 8 foot plants and the chokes were enormous. They had the correct shape and the pointy ends were not blood letters. They had one drawback in my mind: They weren't very purple.

The Sun Strain showing some purple.  This was the first to put on chokes and
subsequent specimen did not come out so purpley and we
considerable larger plants.

On the other hand, the Mann group were normal sized plants. The chokes were a good size but not Green Goliath size, they seemed to adapt to civilization with aplomb and not eager to draw blood.

I have four chokes from the Mann Strain – I have started seeds of F7 - another generation having been grown between then and now -  and intend to grow them out at the Learning Garden – which is where the Sun strain is growing. These population sizes are of some concern to me as we might create a bottle neck if we don't grow larger numbers, but I think we move immediately to larger populations, we can avoid that.

Getting the seed from the dried artichoke is straight forward, if messy.  The tufts at the top are the remains of the artichoke flower.  The seeds are dried together and break away like one would break away small bits from a very thin cork.  

The size of the choke itself compared to the seeds.  I have kept some chokes intact and dismembered others for seed.  The most important thing is to keep the seeds away from predation!  Overnight that can ruin the whole process and - afterall, one cannot go to the store and buy a replacement packet of seeds!  

Packing the seeds I did not plant for safe keeping involves proper labeling!  This label is put inside the jar with the seeds with the same information on the label on the outside of the jar.  All too often something happens to the outside label and then what would one do?  

Just like eggs, do not put all your seeds in one basket.  In a future report, I hope I can show you some results and keep you posted on the progress.  

A seed library is a library that deals in living material.  We bend and shape the future based on the decisions we make in the field about what to save and how we will save it.  Will I decide to cross my Mann strain with the Sun strain?  Or will I try to keep the two strains separate?  Will I do a little of both?  Stay tuned!  I haven't yet decided!

N.B.  This post will be updated with more photos of the different strains and better comparisons between the two.  Also with each new filial generation, new assumptions and decisions will be made.  Follow the drama of plant selection with me! 

25 December, 2017

New Book: Against The Grain

Against the Grain, A Deep History of The Earliest States, published in 2017, provides a very different look at the first organized states in human history than we have considered to be the reality of human civilization.  

The author, James C. Scott, makes no pretense to being an authority in this particular territory, but does bring a scientific mind and a patient attitude in his poking around with accepted theory about humans and their evolving attempts at civilization. This work was a real eye-opener for me explaining some historical phenomena that I hadn't realized needed explanation. Like, why did millions of America's First Nation people die with the arrival of the Europeans and their diseases?  Yes, we know what happened, but what is the backstory?

Modern doctrine holds that, as humans evolved, they left the nomadic life behind and took up crops grown in tended fields.  The bias in most science today is that, in the hierarchy of civilization, hunter/gatherers were a rung lower than farmers with their crops; that humans came to be farmers as they climbed the path of being "more civilized" rather than less - that living in cities was such a big improvement and people flocked to the cities to find protection from the barbarians raiding through out the "uncivilized" parts of the world.  

Maybe that isn't the way it happened, says Scott.  So, with the nature of a scientist, he turns the theories up side down and asks, "is this not more likely?"  Using this contrarian lens, forces us to re-evaluate these theories, so universally accepted; and comes up with different thoughts and explanations.

It won't change the way I garden, but it does make me rethink the idea of being "civilized" and the particular baggage we carry by being "civilized."  Is this the true culmination of civilized or are we simply in transition?  

This is not a large book and can be read in a weekend or two, but I guarantee, once read, you cannot easily squash your thinking back into the old paradigms we have long assumed to be the basis of our civilizations today.

Your mind cannot be unstretched.  And that's a very good thing.


22 December, 2017

Heirloom Seeds, One Story

The large container goes back to the Pineschi
family, the large jar is for SLOLA and the small
jar is mine to plant!  Seeds are abundant! 

There are seeds and seed stories everywhere. Everyone has a relationship to seeds whether they own it or not, because the history of humans and human civilizations are intertwined so deeply, over so many hundreds of years, has made it so. Today's industrial agriculture obfuscates that which once was an intimate relationship into a commodity that we buy, sell, grown with poison and produced with the cheapest means to get to market.

But seed savers everywhere, want to hold the seed and know the story behind the seed – how did it come to be here? And it is the story that makes heirloom seeds “Heirlooms.” There are many old seeds – seeds of varieties that have been around for 100 years or more – but they aren't “heirlooms” without a story.

This is about a seed with a story. I don't know how old this variety is, but the story is good enough for the seed to be called an heirloom and the story seems to point to the fact that it is indeed an heirloom. It's starts out with a dental appointment.

My dental hygienist is married to a dentist. She sees me three or four times a year, if I'm lucky, he sees me three or four times a decade. Professionally at least. So this was one of those professional encounters where I get the question “are you numb yet?” I'm slow about getting numb. He has some stuff in my mouth and my hygienist drops by to say hi, and says to her husband, “David has started a seed library to save old seeds...” And the dentist gets very excited!

It turns out that his grandmother (great-grandmother?) had given him some seeds when he had graduated dental school and was moving to Los Angeles to set up his practice. He was charged with these bean seeds as they were the family bean. He had them for over fifteen years and was not so successful in growing enough to keep the seeds supply healthy and he asked if I would help keep his family bean alive. Of course I would! That's what being a seed savior is all about!

Within a week, I was given an envelope of about 55 seeds of a bean. They were small seeds and I was told they were old. I planted all that I had and presently had a crop of four plants – not a lot of beans. Once the plants were growing and the leaves were distinct, I realized this was not a common bean – Phaseolus vulgaris. And the beans themselves were too long as well. A little research and I figured I had Vigna unguiculata, a close relative, and edible, but not the common bean. It took more time to figure out how to pronounce “unguiculata” than it did to find the correct binomial for it.

This species is called 'cowpea' probably because they were used for forage for animals as well as human consumption. Cultivated cowpeas are known by the common names black-eyed pea, southern pea, yardlong bean, and crowder pea. Fairly common – and their ability to grow in sandy soil makes them a desirable species to have in our inventory at the Garden and in SLOLA. They were domesticated in Africa and are one of the oldest crops to be farmed and not an American bean – like Phaseolus vulgaris, which is what one might suspect without digging into the history of beans. A second domestication event probably occurred in Asia, before they spread into Europe and the Americas.

Our 'cowpea' came from Italy and we call it the Pineschi Family Bean in deference to Dr. Pineschi and his wife that brought this bean to my attention. You can check this productive bean out from the Seed Library when we restock our summer seeds in March. It is a vigorous climber and a good producer of 10 to 12 inch long slender pods. Pick young pods, in the 10 to 12 range and just steam them. I, of course, add butter. Delicious!


15 June, 2017

Orchid Black and David King Offering Greener Gardens This Summer at UCLA

Instructors Orchid Black and David King, offering
Greener Gardens This Summer

Greener Gardens: Sustainable Garden Practice will start this Tuesday evening, June 29 and runs through August 24.  This class is one of the elective classes for the Gardening and Horticulture Certificate Program and the Sustainability Certificate Program.  

Orchid and I have taught this course for several years at this point.  We are ever astounded at the quality of our students and their willingness to approach a different way of looking at our everyday life and how our gardens are a point of impact on the world.  Every action we take in our lives aligns our lifestyle with sustainability or lack thereof.  What can we change as individuals to live a less impactful life and in what way do we compromise?  How can we, in this year of abundant rainfall make changes and improve our immediate surroundings - and what should we look for in governmental policy to make sufficient changes in the Nation's approach to global warming.  Instead of a year to relax, we see our work is ever more important and urgent in the face of mass-denial.

This is not the definitive course on being sustainable, but it does impact the way we act in our immediate environment and with our food.  Students have told us, this course features more than just a few aha moments!  

Meeting in 321 Botany Building on UCLA Campus this quarter and now that we are at the end of our historic drought, many folks are thinking "business as usual," but from our perspective as instructors, this is the very best time to look at some of the issues that we can change without feeling like we are under the gun to HAVE to change.

Enrollment data includes:  Greener Gardens: Sustainable Garden Practice   6/29/2017 -- 8/24/2017    BIOLGY    X 498.10   Reg#:  354809  12 mtgs  6:30 to 9:30 PM


14 June, 2017

Seed Saving Workshop!

Hosted by The Learning Garden and the Seed Libarary of Los Angeles, with Author David King, we are pleased to offer a Seed Saving Workshop on June 25th, 1:30 to 4:30 PM in the garden with plants in various stages of seed production.

David King checks broccoli plans for seed set in
The Learning Garden

With humor and down to earth pragmatic experience, King can show you very practical steps what you need to know and do to save seeds of all your favorite food garden plants.  With this understanding, you can easily exstrapolate this information to use in collecting herbs and wild crafting plans. 

Please note, the workshop is filling up fast  - at only $20 and with a very popular instructor, don't wait long!  

NEWSFLASH: Our Seed Saving Workshop on June 25th IS CLOSE TO FILLING UP - EMAIL grandy133@verizon.net TO SECURE YOUR SPACE ASAP!!

Expand your garden appreciation by learning how to save seeds, this workshop on June 25, 1:30 to 4:30 PM at The Learning Garden (on the campus of Venice High School) features the founding Chair of the Seed Library of Los Angeles taking participants on a journey through the fascinating world of seeds and the wonderful diversity - how to save them from year to year and the call to be a seed steward for these valuable sources of food! Become a person who restores the Ark of Taste and not just one who eats those foods! With humor and inspiration, be a part of this revolution in our food chain!

12 May, 2017

A More or Less Comprehensive Bibliography

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Deppe, Carol, ©2000, Chelsea Green Publishing, A plant breeder with a science degree and avid gardener all rolled into one, Deppe knows her stuff.. This is a lighter read than that makes it sound, but it is firmly into the science of plant breeding and she doesn’t dumb it down. A good and thorough book even if not light reading.
Creative Propagation; A Grower’s Guide, Thompson, Peter, ©1989, Timber Press, Not nearly as exhaustive as other books presented here, but if you are short on change and can only get one book this one has a lot to recommend it. Thompson covers all of it but perhaps not to the depth of other books, so it’s small and makes good reading for the attentionally challenged.
Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally, Kourick, Robert © 1986, Metamorphic Press, Santa Rosa, CA Probably the bible for this kind of garden. I own a first printing and a quick check shows that Amazon has it new for $33.46 (Permanent Publications; March 30, 2005), so it’s still a winner, after all these years.
Designing The New Kitchen Garden, An American Potager Handbook, Bartley, Jennifer © 2006, Timber Press, Portland, OR This is the book used to compile a good deal of my potager design lecture. It has to be adapted for our climate – all of her dates are good if you’re in OH, but I don’t think we’re in OH – at least not the last time I checked we hadn’t even made it to not being in Kansas. This is a good book, well written and filled with inspiration.
Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations, Montgomery, David ©2007, University of California Press Although this has been out for a few years, I never looked at it, in part because because I had confused it with another book called "Dirt, The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth" (the one they made a movie about) that I didn't much care for. This is a good book - chapter one is one of the few introductions to soil science that doesn't feel like a root canal. Nice!

From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles Hardcover, Surls/Gerber ©2016 Angel City Press For LA Gardeners who love history, this book is full of delicious photos tracing the agricultural history of Los Angeles. It is fascinating to see this county as it was before we built it into this wild and woolly metropolis. But guess what? All that wonderful soil and that mild climate are still here!

Gardening for Geeks: DIY Tests, Gadgets, and Techniques That Utilize Microbiology, Mathematics, and Ecology to Exponentially Maximize the Yield of Your Garden Christy Wilhelmi © 2013, Adams Media Christy lives up the hill from the Learning Garden and is a frequent guest here. If you have to buy another book after mine, this should be it. She is smart and has written a very good book digging into the science as well as the garden.

    Gardening With a Wild Heart, Restoring California’s Native Landscapes At Home, Lowry, Judith Larner, ©1999 UC Press I was buying seeds from Larner Seeds long before it was cool – in fact, I was one of those pioneers that made it cool, so I’ve corresponded with Judith Larner Lowry even before Lowry entered the picture! Part essay on why and part directions on how, this is a book about California Native plants and their place in our gardens.
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Weaver, William Woys, ©1997, New York, NY Very few pictures, but the descriptions are sufficient to make you drool all over the book! Not specific to our area, but a lot of fun to read and daydream about all we COULD grow if we had forty acres or more.
How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You ... (And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains,) 8th Edition, Jeavons, John ©2012, Ten Speed Press, San Francisco, CA If there is only one book (other than mine!) you purchase for growing vegetables, this is it! John Jeavons has done more for the growing of vegetables in a small space than any one other single person on this planet. This book is good for the charts alone. With it you have figures that help you determine how many feet of this plant you will need for two people or how many plants of fava beans will you actually have to plant to keep yourself rolling in favas for the winter. (Note: skip the double digging – save your back and the soil!)
Kitchen Literacy, Vileisis, Ann, ©2008 Island Press, Along the lines of the Pollan books, Vileisis brings us back to the knowledge every cook had in days before we let the ‘experts’ and the government tell us what to eat and why. Turns out it was better for us and for the earth. This book is the history of eating dinner in America. It also reflects on woman's role in society and the evolution of that role by virtue of how our lives have changed as regards to eating and effort of putting food on the table.
Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil, Hillel, Daniel, © 1992, University of California Press, There has been a recent spate of books on soil in the past ten years. Preceding this glut by almost ten years, Hillel wrote the best of the lot - all the others are second rate. Not to say they don't have a story to tell, but Hillel's book is not only science, but reads at times like poetry and his love of the subject is steeped in a deep knowledge that encourages affection and respect. There is no other book on soil that teaches so much about soil with a deep spirituality and yet is science-based and science driven. I truly love this book and it has been an inspiration for many years.
Save Three Lives: A Plan For Famine Prevention, Rodale, Robert © 1991 Random House Not a gardening book at all, but certainly a look at how we grow our food, in the face of all the chemical and genetic manipulation promises, can be successful by working with nature instead of trying to be smarter than nature and showing up on the short end of the stick.
Sunset Western Garden Guide 8th Edition, Brenzel, Kathleen Norris, Editor, ©2007, Sunset Publishing This is the number one go-to book for horticulture in Southern California; no other book is as authoritative as this one for our area. We cannot take advice from most gardening books and apply it to what we do in Los Angeles because our climate and soils are nothing like the rest of the world – especially the east coast and England where most books about gardening originate. However, with this book, you can use these other books, (like the ones above) you can then filter their information through ‘Sunset.’
Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition Lowenfels, Jeff et al, 2006 Timber Press; Look up all the titles in the Timber Press catalog – one of the more important horticultural publishing houses in business today! I wish I had this book when I started gardening – this book presents the latest research on the ecology of the soil. A must read!
The Garden of Invention, Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, Smith, Jane R. © 2009 The Penquin Press, Luther Burbank is one of my heroes – all the more because he was considered a bit messy in his record keeping. We owe a huge debt to Burbank from his iconic Burbank Potato to all the Santa Rosa plums and million other plants in between. What a genious!
The Grafter’s Handbook, 6th Edition, Bradley, Stephen, Garner, R. J. © 2013, Chelsea Green Publishing Distributed in the US by Sterling Publishing First published in 1947, this book has stood the test of time. While there are some little British oddities with the English language that can confuse a little, the illustrations and the enthusiasm of the author are wonderfully clear and inspirational. This book is golden for grafting!
The Home Orchard, University of California Press, ©2007, Though not really a propagation book, it has a marvelous discussion of grafting and is a one of the many really remarkable horticulture books coming out of UC’s ANR. If you are into fruit trees, this book belongs on your shelf in a handy spot.
The Kitchen Garden, Thompson, Sylvia © 1995 Bantam Books and her Kitchen Garden Cookbook are both delightful and informative. Out of print, they are available none-the-less from used book dealers and are worth tracking down.
The Lost Language of Plants, Buhner, Stephen Harrod, ©2002 Chelsea Green Publishing Getting well should not get the earth sick. This is the ecological ‘why’ of alternative medicine and living in harmony with nature, but be warned, you will never look at a fashionable layer of mascara the same way again either!  
The New Seed Starter’s Handbook, Bubel, Nancy, ©1988, Rodale Press If you want to grow from seed, this is THE authoritative text on the subject. None better, even if it’s getting a little old. I found mine for $3 or so on a throwaway shelf at Borders. It is the best three bucks I’ve ever spent.
The Resilient Gardener, Deppe, Carol, © 2010, Chelsea Green Publishing This is the book by Deppe that caused me to declare, “If I ever meet Carol Deppe, I will buy her a drink of whatever she's drinkin!” A promise I made good in in 2016 at Seed Savers Exchange when I got to fetch her a glass of water. This is the one book I learned something about gardening I did not know; a distinction that I afford no other on this or any other list.
The Rodale Book of Composting: Easy Methods for Every Gardener, Gershuny/Martin, © 1992 Rodale Books There is no other book that approaches this book in simplifying and organizing the process of composting for any skill level. From beginner on up, you will find this answers your questions and informs in easy to understand text with line drawings.
The Story of Corn, Fussell, Betty, © 1992 North Point Press Not a garden book at all but just try it out and it will hook you with the fascination of corn. This American crop has saved almost every part of the world from starvation at one time or another. That this plant is worshiped by so many American cultures is no wonder when you are introduced to it properly.
The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Berry Wendell, ©1997, Sierra Club Books, Anything by Wendell Berry is worth reading. Everything from Wendell Berry can be life-changing. Wendell Berry, quirky and profound, looks at the world with a lens many of us only aspire to. His writing is eloquent, his thinking eclectic. Of the authors that have been instrumental in bringing me to where I am today, Berry is the one whose ability to see a much larger picture is the most constant and his range of vision deeper than anyone I can name at this moment. There are other Berry books that deserve as much attention as this one, but start here.
Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture, J. Russel Smith © 1987, Island Press (Note: this book is available as a print on demand from other sources, but evidently the quality is not so great – this is a book that is not, of itself, light reading, please get an edition that is readable.) I remember reading this in the mid 1990's and being unable to sleep at night because of the stimulation of my thinking apparatus. I found it exciting and it immediately changed my understanding of our world!