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Selecting for Trouble

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Killing things is not the way to control them.

Organic gardening and farming teaches us that. Let’s say you have a nice crop of Asian greens in your garden, but European Cabbageworms are eating their leaves. And so you use an insecticide to kill the worms. Used often enough, there will eventually be some cabbageworms that are resistant to the insecticide. The idea of “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” comes into play. Those resistant cabbageworms breed new generations of resistant cabbageworms. The old insecticide doesn’t work any more. New and more toxic insecticides are brought in, and the cycle starts all over.

Now we find out that the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals has bred superbugs—microbes resistant to antibiotics. It’s a big problem, and hospitals are frantically trying to find new antibiotics to subdue these super-strong disease-causing germs.

Even more recently, word has leaked out that Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide has been used so frequently and so widely that resistant super weeds have started showing up. “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Nature, too, uses genetic modification—we call it mutation—to circumvent the killing power of our scientists. The stronger the killing power applied, the stronger the weeds have to be to survive, and the stronger they become.

The organic way is just the opposite. Organic farmers and gardeners invite in a greater diversity of creatures. If there are pests, then there are beneficial insects that will show up to devour them. If we use antibiotics only occasionally to cure disease, rather than routinely, then we reduce the pressure on microbes to mutate into antibiotic-resistant forms. If we reduce weeds in our garden and fields with cover crops and mulches, then we not only suppress weeds, we improve the soil as we do so.

Conventional agriculture deals death in the form of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and antibiotics, which only treat symptoms. Organic agriculture enhances life and by increasing bio-diversity, cures problems at their root.

Attempts to control problems by killing things also infects the medical profession, with the same results as in agriculture. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), medical care—and we’re talking about proper medical care that administers FDA-approved drugs–is one of the leading causes of death in this country, claiming more than 280,000 lives per year, says Dr. Brad Case.

The result? According to the World Health Organization, the United States has the worst overall health of any industrialized country on earth (we rank 37th out of 37), and yet we spend as much on healthcare per capita as the two top ranked countries combined.

We’ve seen the links between the life in the soil that produces healthy, organic food and the life in our intestinal tracts that produces good health in our bodies. It’s time for the medical profession to work with nature to prevent disease rather than working to control nature with toxic compounds after disease manifests itself.

Toward an Organic Politics

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As it stands right now, it’s pretty obvious that our politics is all about money. Those with the most money win elections, research reveals. Once in office, the politicians have to keep amassing money to get re-elected. Uh-oh, here come the lobbyists with fistfuls of dollars to give to the Congressperson or state assembly member or mayor or county commissioner or whoever will vote their way. The money taken, the politician then gets to vote on legislation and lo and behold, we have a politics that supports the lobbyists’ money sources. Can you spell Corporate America, Goldman Sachs, and the Koch brothers?

Recent Republican bills in the House have tried to stop funding for any women’s health organization that supports abortion, eliminate Planned Parenthood, de-fund NPR, take the environmental shackles off of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so drilling can begin, open up more areas of the Gulf of Mexico and both coasts to more drilling, allow clear cutting of our national forests, and—if Herman Cain has his way—tax the poor more and tax the rich less, because that’s what his nonsensical 9-9-9 plan would do. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch agrees. His plan for cutting the deficit? “Tax the poor,” he said.

So the current political system is broken badly. The answer is to pay Congresspeople a salary, just like us working stiffs, and make it illegal for lobbyists to give politicians moneyor for politicians to take money. Elections would be funded by the public, and legitimately elected officials would each get the same amount of air time on radio and TV to make their case (the airwaves are public, you know). In fact, ban lobbyists altogether. If a corporation wants to get its message across to a Congressperson, let them provide information to that Congressperson in written form that’s available for the public to see. No secret back room deals allowed. Get the money out of politics. And amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s unconscionable decision that defines corporations as persons and allows them to give unlimited amounts of money to lobby our politicians under protection of their First Amendment rights as persons.

Then we would have a Congress peopled with politicians who would have a chance to re-think the way our country conducts its business. They could then develop an organic politics.

What would an organic politics be like? It would essentially change the lawmakers’ priorities from money to what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote, “We the People, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Promoting the general welfare is a key provision here. It means, among other things and in modern parlance, environmental protections, regulation of banks (or re-regulation, since it was the casting off of regulations instituted in the Great Depression that allowed for the crimes of the current banking system), good and strong health care laws, and a strong social safety net for the elderly, the unemployed, the sick, children, and others who have fallen on hard times. Organic politics would look for ways to increase the health and welfare of the earth and all those who live on it and from it. The use of poisons in agriculture would be strictly controlled. Municipalities would divert all organic garbage and clean waste to composting and/or energy-creating facilities (garbage can first be fermented to create fuel and then composted to be used as fertilizer). Recycling would be supported. Wildlife would be protected, especially endangered species.

There’s so much good we could do if our government wasn’t corrupted by money. It is the root of all evil, you know. So why is it the engine that drives our politics? It’s time to get the money out of politics. If the Occupy Wall Street movement wants to cause real change, it must eventually settle on developing an organic politics along the lines defined here.

The Problem with Keeping Organic Chickens

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My wife Susanna and I both want to keep some chickens. We have the room. The birds could scratch around the property and eat bugs—meaning really, really good eggs, the kind with thick whites and deep orange yolks that stand up proudly.

Right now we feed kitchen scraps to our red wiggler worms, but we could easily divert some to the hen pen, where the chickens can scratch them to shreds and poop all over them, and we can then rake up the mess and fertilize our garden crops and fruit trees with it.

No rooster, though. Who wants to be woken up at dawn by a noisy rooster? Or be attacked every time you walk too close to him or his hens? The hens will just have to forego getting their eggs fertilized.

We have plans to build a henhouse and two excellent books on raising backyard chickens from Storey Publishing: “Chick Days,” and “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.” If you’re thinking about chickens at your place, these two books are invaluable. Just Google Storey’s online catalog.

When we finally build our chicken house, security will be the first concern. On our hill here in Sonoma County, we see fox almost daily. While our dog keeps away the raccoons, possums, and skunks, all of whom like chicken dinners as much as we do, the fox is a sly fellow and a first class chicken murderer and once he knows there are chickens in the hen house, he will try to raid the place.

And so the pen will require sturdy wire mesh. Now a fox will burrow under the strongest wire fencing, so the fencing will have to extend down into a trench at least 18 inches deep, and then be bent to lie flat in the trench about another 18 inches, extending away from the interior of the pen and the vertical part of the fence. Then the soil goes back into the trench, and heavy rocks are set every couple of feet right up against the wire on the outside of the pen.

We have a dog and we live far enough into the country that the dog can run free. So the hens will be able to have the run of the place during the daytime. But as the sun goes down, the hens will go into their pen and during the night will roost in their hen house, where, it is hoped, they will deposit eggs for our breakfast and for our cooking and baking needs.

All this is hunky dory, completely organic, and do-able.

Now here’s the sticking point. “What happens,” I ask Susanna, “when the hens get old and stop laying?”

She: “We keep them as pets.”

Me: “It’s the stewpot for them, in my book.”

She: “Well, your book has to go back on the shelf. You can’t kill Henrietta, or Pecky, or Buffy.”

Me: “That’s why I won’t name them or consider them pets.”

She: “But you will. I know you. You’re a sucker for animals. Look at the way you hug our dog.”

Me: “You kiss the cats.”

And so the argument goes, back and forth. So far, the question of what to do with non-laying old hens has defeated our intention to get chickens. My vision is that if Susanna wins this argument, our place will turn into a kind of convalescent home for hens. We’ll have three or four young ‘uns laying, and dozens of old hens being crotchety and eating us out of house and home, scratching up our flower beds, and generally being a nuisance.

Of course we could build a second pen and hen house for the older non-laying hens and just leave the door open for the fox at night. That’d solve the problem. It would be a win-win for the fox and me.

But Susanna won’t hear of it.

Get Ready for Your 2012 Tomato Patch NOW!

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Believe it or not, now is the time to start planning for next season’s organic tomato patch. Why now? Because you are going to have the earliest tomatoes of anyone in your county and you need to know which seeds to order to get the right varieties and plant them at the right time.

Many home gardeners pride themselves on bringing in the first ripe tomatoes of the season, but very few know exactly how to do it. Here’s what you need to know to bring in the earliest possible tomatoes in your region, in a way that requires the least work. In fact, in less than an afternoon, you can create a tomato patch that will swamp you with fruit all season long without weeding, or even very much watering. My advice is to print out and save these directions.

Overview: Tomatoes are among the highest yielding of all our garden crops. But the earliest tomatoes—those that grow and produce well when the spring weather is still cool—are not the most high yielding types. So we need a strategy. Let’s start with the soil. A very rich soil—that is, one with an abundance of nitrogen from manures—tends to flush tomato plants into lots of stem and leaf growth, but not so much into producing tomatoes. In trials at the Rodale Institute in Maxatawny, Pennsylvania, we grew tomatoes in pure compost, in soil under turf that was removed, and in unimproved field soil that had been in continuous corn crops where agricultural chemicals had been used for many years. The tomatoes produced the heaviest crops in the soil that had been under the turf. Circles of turf grass were removed and tomato plants put into the exposed soil underneath. This seemed to suit the tomato plants best, prompting them into good, compact growth with lots of fruits. If you have an area of your garden that’s 12 feet by 8 feet (96 square feet) and covered in turf grass, you can lift six three-foot circles of turf and shake the soil from the turves into the exposed soil, with two rows of three circles each. If the soil is bare or weedy, turn it up and improve its nutrition with about a cubic foot of good compost per circle. This is where your tomato garden will go.

Varieties: You are initially after the earliest possible tomatoes in your area. And so, you need seed of early varieties—those that will mature fruit when other varieties are hanging out, waiting for warm weather. But you will also want a variety that will produce pounds upon pounds of tomatoes for sauce during the warm summer months.

First, you need to understand the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. Determinate plants set a large crop of tomatoes and then stop growing. Indeterminate plants keep producing new stems throughout the growing season, right up to frost, with trusses of flowers followed by fruit emerging from the leaf axils of those stems. For our earliest tomatoes, we will choose one determinate variety. The other variety in our six-plant tomato patch will be indeterminate. We will also grow an extra indeterminate plant in a large pot to replace our earliest tomato after it sets its crop of fruit. Here are the varieties you need.

Purchase a packet of Oregon Spring V and a packet of a large paste tomato like Rocky. (Oregon Spring is available at Territorial Seed Co. at www.territorialseed.com/prod_detail_list/s?keyword=Oregon+Spring and Rocky is available from Tomato Grower’s Supply Company at www.tomatogrowers.com/processing.htm and scroll down to Rocky.)

Oregon Spring is a cold tolerant tomato developed at Oregon State University for home gardeners along Oregon’s cool coast. The catalogs rate it at 58 days from setting plants in the garden to maturity of its first tomato crop, but we can hasten that. Large paste tomatoes like Rocky—or old favorites like San Marzano or Roma—are indeterminate and will produce bushels of fruit all summer. Rocky is good because each tomato is large and can be used fresh as a slicing and salad tomato or it can be used for sauce. As you prepare for the growing season, start saving all your newspapers. There’ll be a good use for them later. And save all one-gallon plastic milk or water jugs.

Setting Up the Tomato Patch:

Identify your last frost date. In much of the country, that’s about May 15, with more northerly areas up to several weeks later and southerly areas up to a month earlier. Most tomato-growing instructions tell you to wait until two weeks after the last frost date to plant your tomatoes, but I’m going to tell you to plant them two weeks before the last frost date. After all, we want the earliest possible tomatoes and I have a strategy for getting the plants to produce fruit while the neighbors are still selecting their seedlings at the garden center.

Determine where your tomato patch will go. It will be two rows of three plants each for a total of six plants, which translates to a width of eight feet and row length of 12 feet, or 96 square feet. At the hardware store, buy a piece of clear plastic sheeting that will entirely cover the area with one piece. About six weeks before your last frost date, lay the clear plastic over your future patch site and shovel a little soil along the edges so heat is trapped under the plastic and breezes can’t blow it away. This will help warm the soil long before the surrounding soil is warm. If there are grasses and weeds, mow them down almost to ground level before putting on the plastic.

Starting Your Plants:

About the same time you are laying down the plastic, start your tomato plants. If you have a cold frame, warm porch, sunny bay window, or any area that gets six hours of sun a day, you’ll place your new seedlings there. If not, consider investing in fluorescent grow lights hung just a few inches above your seedlings. Tomatoes like heat and light.

Rather than use pots, you’ll need a series of paper cups—small, medium, and large. With a pencil, punch three drainage holes in the bottom of the smallest cups. Fill the small cups to within a half inch of the top with potting soil or any good garden soil. Plant two seeds of each variety of tomato in each cup. Plant two or three cups with Oregon Spring and about 12-18 cups with your high volume paste tomato, such as Rocky, marking the cups so you know which variety is in them. Place the cups in a containing tray that won’t leak and water them well.

New seedlings will show two leaves—the cotyledons—at first, and then will follow with true leaves with scalloped margins. When the seedlings show four true leaves, take the next larger size cups and punch drainage holes, then fill them with potting soil. Select the largest and strongest seedling from each of the smallest cups and transplant it to the next larger size, burying the stem to just below the true leaves. Handle the seedlings very gently, pricking them free with the tines of a fork. If you must touch the seedlings, handle them by the leaves, not the stem. The baby tomato can produce new leaves if you accidently damage one, but not a new stem. You can nick off the cotyledons with a fingernail or use scissors. Discard the runts and mark the new pots with the variety in them.

Let the tomatoes grow until they now produce a tuft of new leaves at the top of the plants. Take the next larger size of paper cup and repeat the procedure, again nicking off lower leaves and burying the stem right up to the tuft of new leaves at the top.

Tomatoes produce roots all along their buried stems, and so what you’ve been doing is creating a tomato plant with a small but strong tuft of growing leaves and a great big ball of roots. If you’ve ever purchased started tomato seedlings at a nursery, you’ll notice that they most likely have long stems and lots of leaves but very small root balls. This is because the nursery has been feeding the plants with high-powered liquid fertilizer, so the plant has no need to grow lots of roots. It’s swamped with fertilizer. When such a plant is put into the garden, suddenly it no longer gets copious quantities of fertilizer, yet it has all those stems and leaves to support without enough root system to support them. And so it sulks and hardly grows at all for a few weeks to a month, until its root system catches up with its green tops. But you have created exactly the opposite: a huge root ball and very little top. When this baby gets planted, it takes off like a rocket, with plenty of roots to supply immediate growth of strong stems, greenery, and of course, big tomatoes.

Planting the Tomatoes:

For your six plants, you’ll have one Oregon Spring and five plants of your main, indeterminate variety. The sixth indeterminate plant should go in a five-gallon pot, staked to grow there until Oregon Spring is finished, after which you’ll pull the Oregon Spring and transplant the sixth main crop plant into its space.

You can leave the clear plastic on the ground and punch planting holes through it, but I don’t recommend that. Over the summer, it will tend to break apart due to foot traffic and create a mess. So I advise pulling up the plastic at this point and storing it for later use, as you will see. Dig six circular holes a foot or more deep and a foot across. Add a handful of compost to each hole before putting in the tomatoes and mix it with the native soil. Plant them deeply enough that all of the root ball and most of the stem is buried. Run a hose on each plant on a slow trickle for at least a half hour, so they are thoroughly watered in.

Mulching the Plot and Caging the Tomatoes:

Each tomato plant will need a vertical cylindrical wire cage to which you can tie the elongating shoots. Tomatoes left to lie on the ground will rot. The wire mesh should be generous enough for you to reach your hand through the squares in order to harvest the tomatoes inside. Concrete swimming pool reinforcing wire is ideal. It will never rust out and your hand will easily slip inside the squares formed by the wire mesh. Each cage will be made from nine feet of four-foot wide wire mesh formed into a cylinder slightly smaller than three feet in diameter. And you’ll need six cages. So you will need 54 feet of wire mesh four feet in width cut into six nine-foot lengths. Form each into a circle and crimp the exposed wire ends onto the closest wire square to make each cage. This reinforcing wire is tough stuff, so you’ll need a good pair of vise grips and tough gloves for this work.

Once the cages—six cylinders four feet tall and a little less than three feet in diameter—are constructed, it’s time to go for all those newspapers you’ve been saving. Lay thick pads of newspaper on the ground over the whole tomato patch, exposing only the holes with the tomatoes in them. Use stones to hold the edges of the paper down so they don’t blow in the wind. If this newspaper mulch is good and thick, it will positively prevent weeds from growing in your tomato patch, and it will hold moisture in the ground so watering will be kept to a minimum. Newsprint will decay over the summer and you can turn it into the soil at fall clean-up, where the wood fibers in the paper will decay into a crumbly brown mass that will loosen the soil and hold water like a sponge.

Once the patch is covered with thick pads of newsprint, set one of the cages over each tomato plant. Weigh down the bottom edge of the wire with several heavy stones or bricks in at least three evenly-spaced places so the cages won’t topple over in a wind, especially after the tomatoes grow up to fill the cages and they become top heavy. I’ve also used tent pegs driven around the bottom wire of the cages to hold it firmly to the soil.

Finish the patch by covering the newsprint with good-looking mulch like sphagnum moss, spoiled hay, cocoa bean hulls, fir bark, or any other organic material. This top dressing looks good, makes it easier for you to walk on the spaces between the plants, covers the papers so they don’t blow around in the wind, and will decay so it can be turned into the soil with the newspapers to add organic matter at fall clean-up time.

Getting Early Tomatoes:

Remember that we just planted our tomatoes in pre-warmed ground before the last frost date. Now here’s how to keep the plants warm so your tomato production begins as soon as possible and you can harvest ripe tomatoes even in June!

You will need three plastic, gallon-sized water or milk jugs for each plant. Fill them with water and set three of them around each seedling inside the cage. There should be just enough room for the three jugs and the seedling growing up between them. This water acts like a thermal flywheel, absorbing heat during the day and giving it off to keep the plants warm through the night. Additionally, retrieve the clear plastic you used to warm the soil. You will need to cut six pieces, each four feet by 10 feet. These will wrap around the outside of the wire cages. Hold them in place with duct tape, especially along the top edge, so the plastic doesn’t slip down. Also cut six pieces in rough, four-foot circles, which you’ll lay across each of the top of the cages, holding them in place by lengths of scrap wood.

You’ve now created mini-greenhouses for your plants. Be aware that as days grow longer and the sun hotter, it could get too hot inside these cages. Place a thermometer in one to check the temperature of all. About 90 degrees F. should be a maximum inside the cages.  On bright sunshiny days, you can remove the top plastic, putting it back on as the sun lowers in the west.

Once you reach your last frost date, consider removing the tops permanently and by two weeks after the last frost date, remove the plastic from around the cages. Empty the jugs and store them under a tarp, strung on a wire in the rafters of a shed, or under some other cover, as direct sunlight will degrade them, and so you can re-use them each year.

Where the last frost date is May 15, your tomatoes will be well on their way to maturity, especially Oregon Spring. It should deliver home-grown, ripe tomatoes of good quality to you by the third week in June or thereabouts.

Summer Maintenance:

It doesn’t take a lot of time to set up this patch and from now on, it takes almost no time to maintain. Make sure the tomatoes have adequate water, usually a deep watering once every two or three weeks in the summer with little rain, or less where rainstorms are frequent. The plants have all the nutrition they need. Weeds won’t be a problem as you’ve covered the ground with a thick mulch of newspaper sections. You’re good to go.

Your tomatoes can be gently and loosely tied using strips of cloth to the wire cages as they grow, and some varieties will grow past the top. Rather than letting them tumble over the edge, weighed down with fruit, which can damage the stems, you can drive three 8-foot stakes into the ground spaced evenly around the outside edge of each cage, then continue tying the elongating stems vertically to the stakes.

Using this method, Susanna and I have put up 48 quarts of tomato sauce plus had plenty of fresh tomatoes for salads and sandwiches and eating out of hand all season long. Oh, and there were plenty to give away, too.

Growing Organic Nuts

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Once upon a time, I planted three filbert bushes arranged in a triangle around a large rock on my property. Over about five or six years, they grew to 12 to 15 feet tall, and sent up many trunks from their roots, so that the bushes turned into a filbert—or hazelnut as some call them—grove. And they started to bear.

The first couple of years of their bearing, I waited patiently for them to ripen their tasty nuts, secured into their green herbaceous husks with the flared and filigreed openings. But when they should have been ripe, in October, I couldn’t find them at all. They’d disappeared from the tall shrubby bushes. And then I spotted the squirrel that had beaten me to my own filberts.

So I went in the house and got my .22 rifle and went to the filbert bushes. I didn’t see the squirrel, but figured he would be listening somewhere in the woods. In a loud voice, I announced, “Hey squirrel! See this rifle? If I catch you stealing all the filberts next year, I’m going to shoot you! You can take some, but not all. I mean it!”

The next October, my daughter, who was about seven years old at the time, and I went to the filberts, pushed our way into the thicket, and sat on the rock. We brought a basket to fill with nuts, but my daughter said there weren’t any. “They don’t show themselves right away,” I said. “You have to sit quietly and pretty soon, they’ll start showing themselves. It’s like the birds. They all fly away until you are quiet, then they return.”

So we sat quietly on the rock for about five minutes. Then she said, “I see one.” And then another, and another, until she saw that the filbert bushes were loaded with nuts, their husks the color of the senescing leaves, which had made them hard to see. We filled a big basket full with the nuts and took them back to the house, where we shucked the hard nuts from their husks and put them in the attic to cure. By Christmastime, we had nuts aplenty, nicely cured in their shells. They’d never needed sulfuring, spraying, fertilizing, or pruning. That’s the way it is with nut crops.

We also had a large black walnut tree near the house. These nuts are covered with a green husk that turns black and stains your hands for weeks if you get its juice on you. The question becomes, how do you get the husks off the nuts without staining yourself and you clothing? Our driveway wasn’t paved, and there were two shallow ruts. We gathered the walnuts and tossed them into the ruts. Every time we drove our car over them, we squished more husks off the hard nuts inside. After rains and dry spells, we could lift the nuts without staining our hands. They also required curing until the holidays.

Finally, we had a large hickory tree that rained its nuts in late September. The hard nuts were encased in segmented husks. These were easy to open to get the hard nuts inside. They too needed to cure until the holiday season. While the husks were easy to open, the nuts were hard to crack and the nutmeats hard to get out of the chambers and convolutions of the shell.

All three of these nut crops grew without help from us of any kind. Year after year they did their job of supplying us with delicious nuts. You can buy varieties of filberts, black walnuts, and hickory trees that produce nuts selected for easier picking and cracking, and easier to get the nutmeats from, than the wild types.

Learn more and see nut trees for sale at the Northern Nut Growers Association (www.nutgrowing.org), at Gurney’s Seed & Nursery (www.gurneys.com), and Miller’s Nurseries (www.millernurseries.com) and click the “Figs and Nuts” tab. Hickories don’t grow west of the Rockies, but black walnuts and filberts do fine.