Monday, January 25, 2010

unHarvested Monday

During the unseasonably warm weather of the past couple days, as I was standing outside thinking of what to post for Harvest Monday, I noticed this frozen, unharvested cucumber leaning against our house. My first thought was "Darn, I didn't get to eat that," followed by "Did I plant cucumber there?"

Not the right way to preserve cukes.

Let this be a warning to us all in the frenzy of seed buying season that we not get caught up in the joys of collecting those lovely little potentials. Too many will cause headaches as we try to fit them into our small spaces. If not because we lack physical room then because we lack the stamina and army of helpers to grow them. Figuring for failure temps fate as the suffit of seed will all germinate, grow fantastically and the usual mauraders will stay away. We will start contemplating eating salad for breakfast, wander the neighbourhood with armfulls of zucchini and wonder if pickled beets are acceptible stocking stuffers. In the fall, we will have waved the white flag to the weeds and be frantically trying to get in at least half of it before the snow is thick on the ground. Our children will be ready with the words, "Not that again." We will say to ourselves that next year we will not go crazy buying seeds. We will be sensible.

Worst of all, we will not even notice that there was a perfectly good cucumber growing right beside the driveway as the ideal snack to bring on a beach run.

Now back to buying and trading seeds...


*** Local Seed Companies if you can't wait for Seedy Saturday ***

These are suppliers that I have used before:

Cottage Gardener
Gretas Organic Seeds
Solana Seeds
Eternal Seeds
Hawthorn Farm

For a whole lot more listings, please see Seeds of Diversity

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wake up Sleepy Seed

On Dormancy and Breaking it


Ssh: This is all a (hopefully) informative ruse to remind you about wintersown but pretend you didn't read this. Some seed sown outside in the snow.

Since I am stratifying some special Angelica seeds that I just received by mail, I thought it would be fun to write a bit about seeds and dormancy.

In the veggie garden world, we often don't think too much about seed dormancy, because our tomato seeds spring into active growth as soon as we 'add water.' I've seen bean and squash seeds sprouting when still on the vine if left to over-mature in rainy weather. The obligatory nature of most crops is useful to the gardener as it means that the plants will uniformly sprout in a predictable amount of time. If you have tried your hand at starting herbs or perennials from seed, you have probably found that not all plants are as easy-going. Some, like parsley, can take several weeks to sprout. Others, like rosemary, sprout erratically over a long period of time.

Benefits of Variability

It serves us to have our vegetables be reliable germinators, but it doesn't always benefit wild plants to germinate quickly and all at the same time. It makes more sense to have your seedlings sprouting only after certain conditions are met such as undergoing a cold spell, breaking dormancy when the soil is wet, in a certain temperature range and when exposed to light. This will ensure that plants, for example, emerge in early spring when the tree branches are still bare and lots of light hits the forest floor. Also, if seeds germinate at different times than they might miss the slug mower or unseasonably cold temperature that wipes out the first batch.

Seed Life

The seed coat has to be strong enough to protect the embryo inside, and prevent excessive moisture loss. It is easy for us to think of seeds as not quite alive but it is more accurate to say that they are hibernating. How long the seed can live varies between plant types with some only remaining viable for a couple months and others surviving many years. For example, amoung vegetables, members of the carrot and onion family tend to have shorter lives than those in the cabbage family. Heat, moisture and light may all cause the metabolism of the seed to speed up, shortening its shelf life. This is why most seed is stored in cool/cold, dark, and dry place. Exceptions to this are seed that must remain moist to be viable such as water plants,* or to prevent the seed from going into a deep dormancy that is difficult to break.**

Sprouting Seeds

To get a seed to grow, the embryonic plant needs to be watered. Some seeds readily let in water but others have hard seed coats or are coated in residues designed to stop germination while still inside their wet fruits such as tomatoes. The gelly or coating has to be washed off with sufficient water before the seed can germinate.

Scarification: Sandpapering, nicking or otherwise damaging the seed coat but not the embryo to let in water.
Often a seed coat will be so hard that it has to be damaged in some way to allow water to enter. This can be from being chewed on or from soil grains scratching the seed or some other process that the plant has evolved to rely on. In our home gardens, we deal with seeds that need a bit of help breaking through their seed coats by using sand paper or nicking them with a sharp knife. Soaking them over night in hot water is another trick commonly used with plants such as sweet peas.

Hot Water Treatment: Soaking some seeds in hot water can soften seed coats and remove germination inhibitors.
Just like with other characteristics of many plants such as flower colour, leaf form etc..., seed coat thickness can also be variabile leading to variable germination times. I have had NO luck starting strawberry spinach, Chenopodium capitatum, but had heard that it can self sow freely. So instead, I bought a couple plants and told them to do their thing. Later, when visiting Wild Garden seeds, I discovered that they are known for erratic germination because of variable seed coat thickness. They have worked at domesticating this seed so it has more uniform germination.

Stawberry spinach also has tiny little seeds that should be surface sown as they germinate better when exposed to light. This is true of other common vegetables such as lettuce. How much light, and what kind, a seed is exposed to gives it information such as far from the soil surface they are. Small seeds don't have as much stored energy to grow through the soil which is partly why they are not sown as deeply as larger seed such as beans.

Some seeds require light to germinate so should be surface sown - pressed into the soil surface rather than buried.
The other common requirement is cold treatment or stratification. Not surpringly, this is found in plants that are native to temperate regions that have winter. North american wild flowers, trees, and many cold hardy perennials germinate better when treated this way.

Stratification: Sticking seeds in a moistened medium in a cold place like your fridge for a period of time to simulate winter.

Which brings me back to those special Angelica seeds that I received that are in the fridge pretending to be in wintertime. You might be asking yourself why I have to pretend at all because there is at least a foot of real snow on the ground right now. These are such special seeds that I have also sown some in a pot outside buried in the snow but to hedge my bets the rest are in so-called controlled conditions in my fridge.

Winter-sowing - Wintersown

Which brings me to the real point of this whole post. Any remember to do their winter sowing? This is a great technique made popular by Trudi Davidoff. Using recycled containers, she makes them into little greenhouses in which she pots up seeds and puts them outside in the snow. They stay out there, unattended, until they the hardy little seedlings are ready to be planted out. No lights, no mess, usually no watering or maintenance until warmer weather comes, no hardening off and more space to start other plants inside. People even wintersow tomatoes!


Red iceberg wintersown lettuce waking up - 2009.

*** More Links ***

* Water plants and seed storage, as well as lots more info on Seed Storage at Mother Earth News
** Ephemeral Seed - info from the Alpines from Seed page

Fun Facts on germinating Carnivorous Plants - a pictorial demonstration of simulating fire - the official site
How to stratify seeds by Canadian Gardening
Much More on Seed Dormancy for those that really want to know

Monday, January 18, 2010

Harvest Monday - The stinking rose

I'm baaack. After almost year long (has it been that long?) break from posting Harvest Monday, my enthusiasm has been revived by Daphne Dandelion's tireless efforts to promote this meme. It has collected a great group of gardeners just as I had hoped.


A bouquet of the enigmatic veggie: garlic. This is hard necked garlic which grows best around here and is great for holding bouquet style. I see a flower arranger's trend developing here...

Garlic has always been on the top of my list of vegetables to grow because it is so easy to cultivate around here. My growing style has evolved a lot since I first stuck some California 'Silverskins' into the ground one spring. Bet you can guess what I do differently now. First off, they go in the ground in the fall and secondly, I've sourced all my garlic locally. The easiest way has been for me to pick them up at the Carp Garlic Festival, which is generally held in August. For several years now, I have treated them like the true perennial that they are, and have replanted the best looking cloves for next year's harvest. This has led to an increase in the size and quality of the bulbs.

This is one veggie that works wonderfully in the 0 mile diet plan (expression borrowed from Salt Spring Seeds - very good West Coast Canadian seed company). It doesn't take up too much room to grow and providing you choose the right varieties, stores so well that it can last you until next year's harvest.

I'll spare you the tutorial on how to grow, harvest and store garlic because it seems like a more appropriate subject for fall - I know, the suspense! Here are some links to keep you busy in the meantime.


Garlic Growers of Ontario
Variegated Serpent Garlic
Mas du Diablo - tells you about growing and harvesting alliums
Overview of Garlic Varieties - lots of info!
Bifucated Carrot blog trials garlic

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Horticulture Magazine's top 20 blogs
Me? Say What??

In November, we experienced a family tragedy. I wasn't really paying attention to the outside world.

Meanwhile... somewhere in Horticulture Magazine land... Patty Craft named me, along with 19 others, one of their top 20 garden bloggers.

Knock me over with a feather. That's a shock. One I thought I'd share with you.

Now, back to the bowels of google.

For your information

The Eco Farm Day 2010 is coming February 26-27. If you plan on being there, drop me an email, we'll share some organic snacks. It was great fun last year when I met my hero Eliot Coleman.

Live in the Ottawa area? Just Foods has various food and growing related activities.

Putting kale through its paces

Picture taken today. Temps are around 0 degrees celcius and somewhat to my surprise, the leaves of this plant perked up. You can see some frost scorch on them nonetheless.

"If you thought that weeks of weather with lows in the minus double digits and wind chills causing a vertigo inducing dip below that, ice storms that coated me in several inches of ice, and weeks with no sun could kill me, then you were WRONG!"

-- says 'Red Cavalier' kale

This is one of a gang of possibly 'perennial' or long lived brassicas that are undergoing winter - Ottawa style - to see who emerges on the other side of the spring melt alive. Of course, just because a plant survives one winter (or half way through one winter) doesn't mean that it is hardy around here. It may mean that we had lots of coozy snow to protect its root system or that we had particularly mild temperatures. A killing year is one with less than average snow fall and lots of cold snaps. So far, I would say that this winter has been average.

Some oldsters who have survived several years are:

Very hard kales like Red Ursa and Dwarf Scotch Curled

This one is 'Red Ursa' kale, a nice cross between Red Russian and White Ursa if memory serves correctly.


This is the species, I think. I also have the cultivar 'Lily White.'

Horseradish: I love the vegetable which is good because it's here to stay.

Got the first root from the grocery store, but if you don't feel like spending the couple bucks, contact me in the spring. I have roots for you (as do I supsect anyone else who has grown it before does.)

Upland Cress (Barbarea vulgaris): No picture sorry. I want to try variegated winter cress but it is not supposed to be hardy here. The regular all green variety, on the other hand, is hardier. It may also self sow.

Some others undergoing the 'test'

Walking kale / Chou Daubenton

The one not beheaded by the rabbit. I have a couple others undercover.

9 star broccoli (cauliflower): I don't expect this one to make it.

I've heard not to expect too much from this sprouting 'cauliflower' - seen here as the wavy grey/green leaves next to my youngest. Next year, I am growing it in a polytunnel as well.

Thoughts on brassica suvival:

Chinese heading cabbage resprouting from the crown. This died shortly afterwards I believe.

Large leaves and heads tend to die back, especially if they are above the snow line. I have had some cabbage heads, particularly 'Red Rock Mammoth', overwinter but most of the wrapper leaves were dead. The stem with cabbage and brassica sometimes manages to resprout a head and some leaves and then go on to flower. Plants that resprout from the roots also do better like Seakale. Short open leafed kales can also make it. Of course annuals that reseed such as mustards have carpetted my gardens with babies in the spring.

In warmer climes, many brassicas such as purple sprouting broccoli and overwintering cauliflower all sail through winter to produce crops in the spring. Sources say that they have seen kale that is tree like in proportions in some very mild areas.


More on perennial or long lived edible Brassicas

Chou Daubenton on the Perennial Platter

Perennial Cabbages on Homegrown Goodness


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Alan Bishop - Agricutural Explorer
The Interview

I am starting a new section on this blog of interviews with gardeners, growers and local seed suppliers. To start it off, here is a most excellent interview with Alan Bishop, the man who started the Homegrown Goodness. In my opinion, it is by far the best gardening forum on the internet. If your thing is edible gardening, homesteading or plant breeding, hop on over to join the fun.

In the meantime, why not read a little (okay a lot) about the man who started it all.


Alan, the man himself.

How did you first get interested in growing your own food?

I grew up on a tobacco farm. It is the farm on which I now live and has been in the family since my great Uncle Coydell Bishop.

Coydell experimented with many things including growing tomatoes and peppers for the local cannery that once existed in Pekin, Indiana. He, along with my grandparents, went so far as to purchase and perfect an unlabelled pink tomato that is now known as Bishop’s Big Pink. My grandparents, Doris and Alfred Bishop went on to purchase the farm where they raised chickens, corn, and White Burly Tobacco which at the time was a booming industry.

My parents, and later myself, helped my grandparents tend to the tobacco. I had a very close relationship with my grandparents and they taught me a lot of intuitive things that I use now on the farm. I also inherited my first tractor, a Ford Jubilee, from my grandfather. A favourite pastime and love of my grandparents was gardening. They always had a garden of a half acre or larger that I helped plant and tend. The garden usually contained corn, summer squash, winter squash (normally Hubbard explaining my love of Hubbard squash), tomatoes (Bishop’s Pink, Rutgers, Jubilee, all of which we still grow today) and more. My grandmother saved and replanted, occasionally even traded, much of her seed.

My favorite “growing” memories with my grandparents were my grandfather planting sugar baby watermelons at the end of the tobacco rows for consumption during cutting season as well as occasionally planting cantaloupes. Nothing was better on a hot day carrying tobacco sticks down long rows as a child than fresh melon. Of course my grandfather also taught me about the value of Ginseng and cultivating wild edibles, two skills which I am currently still using on the farm. The depression and war, and my grandparents’ experiences growing up in the hills of Greensburg Kentucky, were deeply ingrained in me. To this day, I remember their stories about their childhood as though they are my own memories. Kim (my fiancĂ©e) and I have often remarked that should the opportunity be provided then Greensburg would be the location of our own homestead.


On my mother’s side, there were also many gardeners. I have fond memories of visiting family in Clay County Kentucky as well as Washington County, Indiana and their vast gardens. I remember my Grandfather Wilson’s stories about raising Pencil Cob corn on the Red Bird River and Shepard’s Branch near Oneida, Kentucky using a double bottom plow pulled by mules. I remember my mother’s parents having a hedge of gooseberries planted outside their back door and eating and eating those beautiful little berries until I got sick. Hoskins-Barger Yellow/Pink was a family gene pool tomato that I received from my mother’s Aunt. The tomato originally arrived here from Oneida, Kentucky.

In high school, I took several Ag related classes taught by former students of Purdue University, both animal and plant related classes. I had the advantage of attending a school complete with a greenhouse as well as advanced college credit classes. While many students were abusing the system and using Ag classes as an easy grade, I was immersing myself in it and learning as much as I could about agriculture, even if the consensus in those classes meant that industrial agriculture is all that was discussed and endorsed. I learned many propagation methods there as well as learning about many systems of irrigation and harvest. I steered clear of things like FFA (future farmers of America) mostly because I didn’t fit into the category of people interested in those types of programs (the farmers son, 500 acres, chicken houses and a combine) and needless to say people such as them and myself didn’t necessarily see eye to eye. According to my parents, I was a bit of a wild child. It was around this time that we stopped raising tobacco but it was also at this time that I began my first breeding project called Robert Johnson White Burley Tobacco, as a fun experiment and as a tribute to my grandparents (this is why the cross was made between varieties originally grown here on the farm). At one point, I entertained the possibility of attending Purdue University but in hindsight I am glad I choose not to. I prefer to have an open mind and university methods do not encourage that.

While in high school, I became very interested in music and by the end of high school I had played in a number of local bands and recorded a number of songs. I had big dreams and wanted to escape my little town, those turned out to be pipe dreams. Later, I played with a relatively well known band for a while, but for my own health, spiritual and mental, I needed to make a change. Too many of the people around me were exhibiting behavior that was becoming irreprehensible to my personal values and I had become something that I didn’t feel was a true representation of what I could. Something called me home, back to the soil. During this time, my grandmother and I were very close. My grandfather having died in ‘93, she often expressed her disappointment in our non use of the farm (after ‘98 we stopped raising tobacco). She encouraged me to take up the reigns and do something here full time in the way that her and my grandfather had wanted to do but couldn’t (though they farmed my grandfather had worked a full time job previous to retiring). My grandmother’s death in ‘04 was the catalyst for returning to the farm.

I remember one moment in particular, on the morning of 9/11, when I had an awakening so to speak. Many people did, but mine was a little different. My generation had been so desensitized to such events that most didn’t really react; after all, we had been exposed to Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine and so forth. I remember thinking that in my lifetime there would be major changes and that all wasn’t as it appeared and that eventually I should “get prepared.”

I thought about that after I came back to the farm.

During my time as a musician, I worked in landscaping and landscape design and between the money I saved from both careers, as well as from my mother and father’s loving support, I purchased two greenhouses. My money was gone but I was into what I was doing in a way that is unexplainable.Often times when I look into something that interests me, it goes beyond ordinary interest, becoming a bit of an obsession. I have to learn all I can. I have to become what I study, and as such I immerse myself.In 2005, I found myself immersed. I began growing out many varieties of tomatoes and peppers and making crosses as well as selling at the local farmer’s market. All of my life, local and homegrown food had just been something that was always available to me. I hadn’t yet made the connection between actually growing it, selecting it, adapting it, and being connected to your food in the way that I am now. That didn’t happen until I had been separated from this farm for a few years as a musician. It was then, after my awakening, that I realized what I was missing, that I loved what I no longer had.

One of his greenhouses.

If you were to give me a tour of your farm, where would we start and what would I see?

That’s a really excellent question and the truth is it would probably change daily, at least seasonally. I’ve always got some big new idea or project I’m working on, whether it is a new piece of infrastructure or a garden layout. There’s always something. It never really feels complete here on the farm, and that’s one reason I love what I do. I am committed to it so completely.

Lately though I’ve been working on my veritable garden of Eden. It’s an overextension of my current orchard project. This past fall, I cleared about 1.5-2 acres of scrub forest on the back side of the farm, in an area that was once open field that my grandparents used for growing corn to feed their chickens. In this area, I am planting engrafted seedling trees of many fruit varieties in the name of diversity, curiosity, and selection and improvement along with Luther Burbank’s white blackberries, wild yellow and purple raspberries, and a ground cover of alpine strawberries. This area will also be a repository for Tim Peters’ many, varied perennial grains. I have also dug a small pond there. Right now there isn’t much to see there but in a few years, it will be beautiful.

My favorite place to be on the farm in the winter time is probably around the two turkey/guinea coops. I’m really proud of my birds. They have so much personality and they are so much fun to watch. In the early spring, the greenhouse makes for an excellent showing. While the grass outside is still brown, the warmth and the green coloration of the young plants in the greenhouse are quite inviting and striking in contrast.

If it were late summer/early fall, we would head out to the Astronomy Domine sweet corn patch to select seed and look at the beautiful husked ears of every hue of sweet corn seed you can imagine.

Astonromy Domine Sweet Corn

There is this little quarter acre area next to the house that I have trellised with cedar posts cut from our woodlot this season that are being used to grow many berry varieties. I have an obsession with using as many of the natural and sustainable resources around the farm as I can in my projects. They don’t always look aesthetically pleasing until they are grown over but it is good hard work and rewarding. I also have this thing about using/re-using all the junk laying around the farm. Four generations of one family on the same farm piling stuff into one old tobacco barn means there are many resources and lots of junk to utilize. It’s been part of my compulsion to alleviate this eyesore (it’s the only place that is actually cluttered on the farm) and many times I find useful materials for projects here. My rabbit hutches were almost all built out of scrap lumber, metal, and nails from the barn. Just yesterday I used a bunch of old guttering from my grandmother’s house. It had been lying next to the barn for several years now, and I got to thinking about how it would fit perfectly across the top of the cedar trellis systems and would be the perfect depth for growing alpine strawberries in the summer, not to mention that they would be in easy reaching distance for picking. I tacked up about 150 foot of the guttering system which will provide a lot of room for the diminutive alpine strawberry plants. They will freeze in the winter, but given their self seeding abilities, and my obsession with saving a few ounces of seed off of them every season, this will be fine. Besides they grow quickly and are easy to replace and I’m always making new crosses with them, attempting to select for larger size and develop them and their superior flavor into an alternative market crop.

Cedar post trellis system with gutters for alpine strawberries

What is your current areas of interest right now?

So many of the things I am into are influenced by the world around me, particularly music, which still inspires me to do new things. This is why so many of my breeding lines are named after songs, albums, or musicians. I’m also highly influenced by history, various human cultures and so forth. I’m always reading, particularly about agriculture. I’ll learn something new that I didn’t know before and it just clicks like “I have to try that.” Terra Preta was like that. Alpine Strawberries were influenced by Jefferson having grown them. Trees from seed, though genetically unstable, resonated with me via Jonathan “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, plus there’s that whole primordial “this is how agriculture probably started experience.” I always imagine that agriculture developed from cultures noticing that seeds were growing and thriving in midden heaps. That is the essence of humanity: Innovation.

At the moment, I’m really into turkeys. Plants will always be my first love but animals, particularly poultry and now rabbits, are a close second. I love turkeys, their personalities, colors, and most of all the striking poses they take as well as their meat qualities. Heritage turkeys, not the monstrosities they grow in overcrowded houses.

The Anasazi realized the value in these birds and to this day they are credited with initial domestication; I like that. There is something special about the way that they saw them as a sacred animal.

I’m very interested in breeding new color combinations, but mostly in improving feed to weight ratios and fixing size types.

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about Beltsville Small White Turkeys and Midget White Turkeys, both were novel ideals which came a bit too late, coinciding with the rise in popularity by producers of broad breasted monstrosities. Both were almost lost completely. I have obtained new stock of both breeds, due to arrive this spring and already have the Royal Palms that were involved in the breeding of the Midget Whites. I converted my original Rion Hobby Greenhouse into a secondary turkey coop for my small type birds. My hope is to improve the breast meat of these birds and breed midgets in less predator prone colors than white. We have a bad problem with hawks here and so white, small type birds are sitting ducks (so to speak). I think that a Bronze, Black, Bourbon, or Blue midget with a wide breast would be of importance to a lot of producers.

Ideally, I want to have two flocks with one made up of large sized birds to act as a gene pool just like in most of my breeding projects. Then I want a second flock, another gene pool, but restricted to smaller sized birds. Not all families, particularly small ones, will want to eat a standard bronze sized turkey, some want a smaller bird.

Some sassy looking turkeys

I’m also working with standard and French Guineas. French Guineas look just like pearls, but they get huge - 7 lbs. With a bit of light, they will lay year round like chickens. The issue is they don’t breed naturally, but by using a standard guinea cock bred to a French hen over a few generations, I can select for a naturally breeding, year round laying, French type guinea.Rabbits are new to me and I’m not sure where I’m going with them. It was the history of rabbits and French settlers in this area that got me interested. I’m growing for meat; in time I imagine I’ll breed some of my own unique stock.

Regarding plants, 2010 will see the stabilization of many lines of ongoing breeding progeny. Of particular importance to me is the release of my tomatoes - Absinthe and Jack White, Pac Man, The Pink Floyd and some others - to a seed company. I would also like to get the Astronomy Gene pool out there via a seed company. There are some squash vine borer and powdery mildew tolerant Hubbard squash lines, both large and small, (to go with your turkey?) in the pipeline, along with a very cool, nearly stable, Hip-Gnosis green fleshed cantaloupe, two lines of genetically diverse white fleshed watermelons and the dent corn; both gene pool OP types and nearly fixed varieties.

I’m always obsessed with seed varieties, scouring catalogues even long after I’m out of room to grow any more. I do a lot of gene pools in a search for diversity. In coming years, as mentioned above, I’ll be doing the uber important work of selecting fruit varieties from seed. We need new and better adapted fruit varieties, but we have been so discouraged by the “know it all” professionals from growing from seed. It’s no wonder we are loosing diversity.I like to read about and experiment with soil fertility. I’ve been raising red worms for several years now, but this year it’s bigger than ever. I have 12 full 4 x 4 x 4 wooden bins that have been fed variable feed stocks. Everything really, including meat, leaves, rabbit manure, chicken manure, goat manure, cow manure, horse manure, table scraps, leftover wine squeezing and yeast cakes, coffee, coffee beans, bakery leftovers, egg cartons (cellulose). Many of them have been fortified with Bat Guano and lime. Worms are a world all their own and so is soil fertility. I love talking about it. I enjoy the idea of building a soil, of building humus. We figured out that in the past 5 years, we have amended 5-6 acres of land with close to 40 tons of material. That’s a lot. My grandparents used a lot of organic matter but also used commercial fertilizers. When we started farming again after the 8 year lull, there were few worms. Now they are everywhere. There are so many, in fact, that unless the ground is frozen, the turkeys hardly ever eat any grain. I count that as a blessing, both in not having to feed them and in that a large earthworm population is a sign of fertility and that at every second of the day they are working my soil, fortifying it.

I like concepts. Words really. Sustainability, humus, naturally breeding, gene pool. Lot’s of them.

What do you see as the most important trend in edible gardening right now?

When I first started the message board and got into Open Pollinated/Heirloom seeds, a lot of people frowned upon what I was saying about making gene pools, about breeding new varieties with a wide genetic base. I tried to explain it to people then but they didn’t get it.

The concept to me was always a two edged sword. On one hand, you had the idea of genetic purity in seed strains, which on the face of it, strikes me as like Le Petit eugenics, but in some instances it is a good thing. The instances within which it is a good thing are those instances when one is growing a variety adapted specifically to their bio-region, climate, or more specifically their own garden.

The problem arises when we take a look at how few actually “regional” seed companies we have. Before the so called Green Revolution, we relied on these regional seed companies that sold seed adapted specifically to our environment - seed that we could count on. The heirloom movement came along and gave us tons and tons of diversity, which is a good thing, but with it came marketing seeds adapted to the Pacific North West or the South Western states to people on the east coast or in Canada or in the deep south where they will not grow properly without a struggle. You also have what we have come to call “seed snobs”, those obsessed with saving every variety of everything and keeping it completely “pure.” These people didn’t get me at all. I was being inspired by guys like Ken Ettlinger and Alan Kapuler; bio-diversity was the key to me, so I made a place for folks like me in my forum.

Cover of Deep Diversity Catalogue

So my thing was to find seeds adapted to your environment, preferably regional varieties that historically correspond to your area, where you are missing something in your seed list and where there exists no new variety then to breed a variety, particularly using gene pools and horizontal resistance selection. Here we get maximum diversity, and while it is not always a crop harvestable all at once, a trait useful mostly only to industrial agriculture anyhow, it works. You can select for a set of traits and create something stable and “pure” that has never existed before, or you can select for an open pollinating gene pool or grex of varieties. This is how we ended up with most of our heirloom diversity to begin with. Looking at the Native American varieties, we can see this kind of diversity in many of their crops such as squash that grow fruit of four or five types from one seed variety, a single watermelon type which makes red, yellow, and orange fleshed melons of all sizes or “Indian corn” as it is so called for all its various colors. At one time this was a gene pool.

The other thing is that many of our crops, our treasured heirlooms, particularly corns, are highly inbred to the extent that if we don’t do something we are going to loose them. I always say that sometimes the genes are more important than the varieties. So many gene banks and seed companies are dealing with inbred lines that we are going to loose all of those important genes if we don’t start gene pooling them and increasing their diversity and limiting in a major way their diversity.

So really, I think the most important trend in agriculture is this move towards the acceptance of amateur plant breeding. It’s only through this area of research in conjunction with organic methods that we will ever be able to develop useful alternatives to industrial agriculture for our communities.

Another thing I have noticed, more of in the past year, is the trend to move away from tomatoes as the uber important crop of interest. So many people are concerned with growing and maintaining tomato lines, understandable as it’s a popular and well loved crop that doesn’t take much room too grown, but we already have about 10,000 well known tomatoes, of which some many are probably very similar. A lot of people are interested in breeding tomatoes. I’ve moved away from it. It’s nice to see people getting into other crops, maintaining them as well as breeding new ones. It gives me hope, and I hope that in time we will see half as many new other vegetables being bred, maintained and released by individuals every season as we do tomatoes. Maybe I am biased when it comes to tomatoes though, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I don’t eat them, and wouldn’t if I was paid! Is it strange for a Hoosier to not like the taste of tomatoes?

I think a lot of this change has come due to all the uncertainties in our world, both economic and political. I think it’s good that people are looking at regionalism and sustainability. It is probably time that we get ready for the worst, even if the worst never comes. The only way we will ever be able to continue to thrive as humanity is via experimental and sustainable agriculture.

The thing that gives me the most hope and the most inspiration are the numerous friends I have made in the world of agriculture, in person and via the internet. So many great friends have shared not just their diversity and knowledge with me, but their love and their friendship, and that is the greatest gift of all. One day, I dream of meeting them all in person, of sharing with them our hopes and dreams in person. It is because these people have put their belief and friendship into my work that I do what I do. This is the only place I have ever felt accepted in the world of agriculture. Even 10,000 years after we stopped stumbling around the wild simply hunting and gathering, we are all still a tribe. Part of me, the part that motivates me, is my love for almost all things and all people.

Alan Reed Bishop


Thank you Alan!

Hear more on his blog Bishop's Homegrown Goodness