A Journey to Grow a Little Food Close to Home

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Heirloom vs Organic...vs Hybrid

Ok readers...this is going to be a 'must read.'

I've had several conversations and questions in the past few weeks about the differences between heirloom and organic plants. I'm going to offer a quick summary here that should clarify things.

Let me, though, say this: Organic and Heirloom ARE NOTthe same thing.

To start with, let's talk about genetics!

If you happen to find yourself with 2 Labrador Retrievers and you allow them to...er...make babies, you will get...

You guessed it - Labrador Retrievers!

If you have 2 poodles and you do the same thing, you will get...poodles!

If, though, you have one Lab and one Poodle, and you breed them, you would get a...


How does this work with plants?

If you have one particular tomato plant that you keep breeding, say...a Brandywine, you will continuously have Brandywines. If you carefully protect the genetics and don't allow them to mix for somewhere between 50 and 100 years (the jury is still out on this one), you will have an HEIRLOOM variety.

If you mix two different kinds of tomatoes, though, you get a HYBRID.

Why is hybridization done? Usually it's to isolate a desired trait, like early production (Early Girl Tomato), plant reliability (Better Boy Tomato), flavor (Beefsteak tomato), or harvest time consistency (Roma tomato...used in Heinz Catsup).

Is there a problem, then, with hybrids?

If you want to buy plants every year, stick them in the ground, and know that you'll have a fairly successful harvest...no...there is nothing wrong with hybrids!

If, though, you'd like to cut one or two of those Early Girl tomatoes open at the end of the year, pull the seeds out, and dry&save them to plant next year...yes...there would be HUGE proble with hybrids!!!


Most hybrid veggies that we can get are known as F1 or Filial Generation One. This means that the seed or plant is the result of just one Lab/Poodle mix.

The thing with genetics, though, is that they are SLOW to change. Once the hybrid plant grows and produces seeds, the seeds don't really want to be hybrid any more.

So... if you plant the seeds that you saved from your Early Girl, some of the plants that grow will look like one parent, some will look likethe other parent, some will be quite deformed, and just a small few MIGHT look like Early Girls.

There are also F2 and F3 hybrids. F2s result from breeding two F1 Early Girls. F3s result from breeding 2 F2 Early Girls. This is where the genetics get tricky. If 2 parents are chosen for flavor, an F1 is created. If 2 different parents are chosen for reliability, a second F1 is created. If these two F1s are bread to make an F2, the F2 would have 4 genetic lines. If this process is repeated a second time, another F2 would be created. When both of those F2s are bred, the resulting F3 might be an overall superior plant but would have 8 genetic lines within it and, as the consumers, we could never replicate this if we tried to save the seeds for the following year. This means that our plants that we grew from saved seeds could look REALLY wierd and might not produce all that well.

Some thing important to remember this that ALL plants on Earth are hybrids. Unless you grow a plant in a sealed box, mixing if genetic material WILL happen through pollination. When I said, though, that genetic change happens slow, what I meant was that the genetics of hybrids will eventually stabilize so that seed that is saved will grow well the next year. The only way to stabilize the hybrid, though, is time...lots of time!

The Early Girl has been on the market since about 1975, or for 36 years (generations). Each year, the plant is re-hybridized in order to force its genetics to remain identical.

The Brandywine tomato has been on the market since about 1885, or 126 years (generations). During that time, it has been allowed to adapt to changing conditions and has been allowed to evolve naturally as it aquires additional genetic traits through natural cross-pollination.

Notice that I haven't talked about organic at all.

This is because organic refers to HOW something is grown (as opposed to heirloom and hybrid which refer to WHAT is grown). Either heirloom or hybrid plants can be grown organically...that is - without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The question that you need to ask yourself when buying seed/plants is what you are ok with growing.

Hybrids have more uniform flavor and shape and are typically easier to grow. You don't know, though, what plants have been mixed in order to get the hybrid and you won't be able to make a 1-time seed investment - you'll have to buy new seed/plants each year.

Heirlooms can vary in their flavor and shape (I personally like the fact that they are 'more interesting') and are more difficult to grow (read: they need to be loved). For that, though, you can know that the varieties have a long history and you'll be able to save seed and use it again the next year.

Either way, try to make the move to growing organically - the reason that we garden in the first place is to put fewer chemicals into our bodies!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Garlic Survived!!

Last August I planted garlic. Over the weekend, I uncovered it after the long winter...and it survived!!
It looks a little weak but some sun and warmth ought to brighten it right up.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Late last week I came home to thisand I was super excited!

I ripped open the box and found these 4 sleeves

What was in them?

TopHat Blueberriesare a dwarf variety (everybody knows how much I like tiny things!) that can be grown in pots on a deck or porch.

When I found out about them (they are relatively new), I had to have some.

Here are the little guys out of the protective sleeves

Now...here's the thing with blueberries - they need something special for their soil.

Back in August last year, we talked about growing dirt. One of the things that we didn't get too in-depth about was soil ph. Ph refers to the amount of acid (or lack thereof) in the soil. Most veggies and flowers like a rather neutral soil (i.e an average amount of acid) of 7.0 on the ph scale. Blueberries, on the other hand, like LOTS of acid. They like ph levels of 4.5-5 (yes...the lower the number, the higher the acidity). If this high acidity is not maintained, the plant will not look very healthy and may even die.

So...how do we know what the acidity level is and how do we correct it (i.e. lover the ph)? Test and amend!

First, always start with high quality soil.

Look at how full of organic material that is!

This is actually a mix of organic compost and a heavier soil. I wanted the heaviness to the soil because this is a bush and will move around a lot in the wind. The roots need something heavy to grip into.

So, with this soil ready to go, I needed to test it. At most garden centers, you can pick up a soil test kit for just a couple bucks.

I really only needed the ph test but the nitrogen and phosphorous and soforth were included as well. Follow the directions on the kit and you'll get the ph of your soil in just a few seconds. Mine, as predicted, was a neutral 7.0.

Knowing that blueberries like a ph level 2-2.5 points below this, I needed to lower the ph level by raising the acidity.

I didn't have a peat bog handy to plant my blueberries in (peat is quite acidic) so I used an age-old trick - sulfur!
This stuff is an elemental sulfurwhich means that it is very pure. Other options are ammonium sulfate and aluminum sulfate. They work faster (3-4 months as opposed to almost a year for elemental sulfur) but are harsher on the plants. I'd rather take the long term option and use a temporary fix for the remainder of this year (like Miracle Grow for Acid-Loving Plants).

After following the math on the bag, I knew that I needed about 1.5 lbs to lower the amount of soil that I had by 2 ph points.

There was no doubt that I was working with sulfur - the smell of rotten eggs was everywhere!

Once mixed, though, I was ready top plant. When you pull plants out of the pots that you buy them in, make sure to massage the roots apart just a little if they are root bound like these It helps the plant to grow better.

So... here they are all potted up!

Now, I just have to cross my fingers that they'll grow well!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rising Food Costs...and what to do about it

I don't think that I've ever done a propaganda post before. I don't think that this is the place for things like this, this, this, this, or many more. This is a gardening blog, after all. Why, then, am I about to talk about some of the propaganda that is floating around?

Because I think that this time, it's real.

A personal interest of mine is the history of societal evolution (I know...I'm weird). By that, I mean that I find the expansion and collapse of societies throughout history fascinating. Specifically, I am interested in the patterns that show why these expansions and collapses happen as well as the patterns of what happens to people living in those societies as the society moves through its lifecycle.

One of the first known societies of humans was Sumeria. Founded in about 5300 bc (or about 7300 years ago) in the modern day Middle East, it grew to encompass vast lands, amassed large amounts of knowledge, and offered its citizens a pretty good life. Then, it collapsed.

Following the Sumerians were (in approximate order) the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Hittites and Akkadians, the Phonecians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chineese Han and Tang Dynasties, the Myans, the Spaniards, the Dutch, the French, and the English.

This list, remember, includes the largest civilizations on the planet at the particular time in history and spans approximately 7000 years. Numerous smaller societies existed during this time all over the world and, interesting, also followed the same patterns of expansion and collapse and all had the same milestones.

What are those patterns, you might ask? Think of the expansion as a 10-step program...

First, the society is founded because people want something different than what they are used to. Morale is good.

Second, the society is threatened by those who surround it. Those can be the people whom were broken away from, the people on whose territory the group settled, or both. Morale is low.

Third, the emerging society battles against the threat. If the society wins, the first step has been taken toward being 'the big dog on the block.' Morale is high.

Fourth, the society, in its newfound glory, sees much learning, innovation, economic growth, and standard of living increase. (The negative side of this is a decreased concern for the area's resource inputs (natural resources as well as human capital) which are necessary for growth.) Morale is high.

Fifth, the learning and innovation cause rifts to form within the group as some view themselves as better than others. Morale is low.

Sixth, an internal battle occurs between the different groups. If the differences are settled, the society basically guarantees itself 'the big dog on the block' status. Morale soars.

Seventh, the society, in its newfound comraderie, sees much learning, innovation, economic growth, and standard of living increase. (The negative side of this is a decreased concern for the area's resource inputs (natural resources as well as human capital) which are necessary for growth.) Morale skyrockets.

Eighth, other groups begin to look to the successful society for leadership, protection, economic gain, etc. (Decreased concern for the area's resource inputs (natural resources as well as human capital) remain.) Morale is to the moon!

Ninth, the society begins to help those who ask for it under the guise that economic and peace-keeping advantages are to be had. (Decreased concern for the area's resource inputs (natural resources as well as human capital)grow) Morale is astronomical!

Tenth, the society stretches itself thin in order to maintain that it began in step nine. (Concern for the area's resource inputs (natural resources as well as human capital)grow) is essentially non-existent) Morale begins to decrease slightly.

It is really at step three that that the problems begin. Basically, winning goes to the heads of all of the members in the society and they begin to think, without realizing it, that they are essentially invincible.

The problem is that no one can see that the problems are festering until step ten. At that point, it's too late.

What happens?

First, the cycle begins again for the nations that 'the big dog on the block' has partnered with/is protecting. Basically, others want a piece of 'the good life.' Morale drops more.

Second, this unrest causes hardship for the citizens of 'the big dog on the block' as government tries (understandably) to maintain the status quo. This is marked by rising costs and decreased supply within the economy, a notable separation of the 'haves' and have-nots,' and the feeling that technological and educational advances are reversing. Morale is fades quickly.

Third, 'the big dog on the block' society breaks down. This breakdown causes extreme hardship for the citizens. Life reverts back to a much earlier and lower standard unless other societies offer assistance. If assistance is offered, life still reverts and the standard is lowered but life does not 'crash and burn.' Morale is basically non-existant.

Now...if you track these steps for any of the previously mentioned societies, you would be able to see them quite clearly.

If you track them for the United States, you'd be scared.

1st Plymouth Rock Settlers
2nd Revolutionary War
3rd Revolutionary War
4th Period between Revolutionary and Civil wars
5th Period between Revolutionary and Civil wars
6th Civil War
7th Industrial Revolution, Women's Rights, Civil Rights, etc
8th WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Panama Conflict
9th WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Panama Conflict
10th 1st Gulf War, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, etc

1st China's Expansion, India's Expansion, Tunisia, Lybia, etc

2nd Current US economy - Housing costs up, Fuel costs up, Food Costs up, value of college education in question, widespread political protesting, shrinking middle class/expanding lower class, etc

3rd ??? When Rome fell, the Dark Ages lasted 1000 years! When Spain fell, its
crash-and-burn lasted 200. Brittain was nice enough to be bailed out by the
U.S...but only because we wanted to park a few ships off its coast during WWII.

Countries don't usually receive aid after they collapse. Why?? The new 'big dog on the block' has its own issues to deal with!

See why I'm a little worried!

So...what does this all have to do with a gardening blog?

Growing a little of our own food can help all of us to weather this storm!!

In a time when we hear things like this:

The food supply in the average city in the United States, if it’s not daily renewed, would run out in about 3 days — Lester Brown “The Planet’s Scarcest Resource is Time,” March 22, 2011.

and this:

Cheap food may be a thing of the past in U.S.
Americans spend only about 10% of their annual incomes on food, compared with as much as 70% in other countries, but with prices climbing, some economists wonder whether the nation's abundance of affordable food is history.

The U.S. Labor Department reported that wholesale food prices jumped 3.9% in February over January, the highest monthly increase in 37 years.

Some ingredients [are] up 40%, 50%, 60% over last year," said Ephraim Leibtag, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist. "When you see wheat prices close to 80% up, that's going to ripple out to the public."

What can you do?

Plant a garden.

Maybe you won't go as far as the Dervaes Family in California, but at least you'll take a step in the right direction and start to help yourself, your family, and the situation at hand.

Speaking of the Dervaes Family, here's their latest progress:

March Harvest Tally252 lbs Produce

Eggs Chicken 91 Duck 160

2011 Tally to Date663 lbs Produce

Eggs Chicken 117 Duck 345