Three Sisters

 

The Three Sisters of Native American agriculture are corn, beans, and squash, grown together where they can complement each other and, when eaten together such as in succotash, they can complement each other nutritionally. The Three Sisters get on so well together that it’s tempting to ascribe their harmonious relationship to one of the many Native American legends describing it, ignoring the thousands of years of human trial and error, experimentation, and opportunistic capitalization on circumstance that played into the development of the relationship.

 

Corn provides a tall stalk for the bean vines to climb upon, and her deep roots help stabilize the soil and pull up nutrients from deep down. Beans fix nitrogen from the air, providing fertilizer for herself and her two sisters. Squash sprawls on the ground where her large, prickly leaves keep away some pests and provide a living mulch for her sisters, keeping the soil moist and inhibiting weeds.

Three Sisters 6389
Gateway image of the Three Sisters of Native American agriculture: corn, beans, and squash at Little Turtle Waterway in Logansport, Indiana. Photo by Chris Light.

The nutrients available from all three plants provide most of what a person needs. Add to that the capacity for all three to keep dried in storage through the winter, and it’s easy to understand how Native Americans in North America adopted them as the foundation of their diet. This Thanksgiving, along with hearing or reading some entertaining and philosophically informative legends about the Three Sisters, there can be great enjoyment in tasting one of the many recipes for succotash as part of the holiday dinner.

“Single Girl, Married Girl”, an Americana song from the Carter Family catalog, sung by The Haden Triplets on their eponymous 2014 album, produced by Ry Cooder. The song, the singers, and the producer all share deep roots in American music. For more of The Haden Triplets, view their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert, where they lead off a four song set with “Single Girl, Married Girl”.

Most succotash (derived from a Native American word, like numerous others) consists of a base of corn and beans, leaving out the squash, but for autumn dining, and especially for Thanksgiving with its reminders of the autumn harvest and the debt of European immigrants to Native Americans, adding squash to a succotash recipe can only improve it for the season. The squash and its seeds will add many of the benefits a person could get from eating turkey, another native of North America, including tryptophan, the chemical many believe is responsible for a satisfied diner’s desire to relax on a couch after Thanksgiving dinner, as well as lazily escaping from kitchen cleanup duty.
— Izzy

 

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Grow a Perfect Tomato

 

To grow a perfect tomato, start with a planter on wheels. You could put your tomato plant in the ground, but you would have to erect a fence to protect it from critters, and you couldn’t control the soil nutrients and watering as well as you could when the plant is in a pot. Place the planter as close as possible to your house or apartment, preferably on a deck or balcony, the idea being to discourage critters, while making it easier for you to tend your plant. The planter needs wheels because your tomato plant needs as much soil as possible, preferably in a deep pot, and that makes the whole contraption heavy. Depending on where the sunlight falls at your place and on your critter situation, you may want to move that planter around a bit.

Now that you have a planter on wheels, preferably a deep planter so that it holds water longer than a shallow one, fill that planter with high quality organic potting soil that has good stuff already in it, like bat guano and worm castings. In order for your tomato plant to stay healthy and productive throughout the growing season, quality potting soil which doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers is the key component. Plant your plant, good and deep, and water it in. Your tomato plant is off to a good start.


Tomato on its stem
A tomato growing on its stem. Photo by tooony.

Once your tomato plant starts growing, you will need to place a cage or some kind of sturdy supports around it before it gets out of hand sprawling all over the place. Some tomato plants are more compact than others, but even they will appreciate support for their fruits when they come along. Now is also the time to consider additional critter control measures if necessary by installing a net or other guard along with the cage or supports. Your tomato plant is of value to you, and it could be to others as well, others who are always watchful and ready to strike the moment the fruit is ripe.

Water your tomato plant deeply and infrequently, rather than shallowly and frequently. You will need to keep an eye on the weather. A rain gauge may help. Too much water is bad, as is too little. The amount and intensity of sunlight affects the amount of water your tomato plant needs. Stick your finger several inches deep into the potting soil, and if the soil is dry and no rain is in the forecast, water your plant well. Inspect your plant weekly for tomato hornworms, more if you see signs of leaf eating. Pick off and discard the hornworms. The same goes for leaves stricken with blight – pick off and discard them.

Pomidor
A ripe and ready perfect tomato. Photo by Letrek.

Once your tomato plant starts bearing fruit, be even more judicious with your watering. Too much water at this point could lead to disfigurement of the fruit, as well as ruining their flavor. Add calcium to the soil, along with an organic fertilizer high in phosphorous. Phosphorous will help the fruits grow and multiply, and calcium will keep them healthy. Relax and watch the fruits of your tomato plant turn from green to pink to red. When the fruits are ready for you, they will separate from the plant with a gentle tug from you. If they won’t come free readily, you can still cut them free at the stem and put them on the kitchen counter to continue ripening over a couple of days. They will be delicious!

Cost per tomato: Between 5 and 10 dollars the first year, cheaper afterward.
— Izzy

 

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Poor Man’s Fertilizer

 

Historically, the term “poor man’s fertilizer” has referred to snow cover which upon slowly melting releases nitrates into the soil, and particularly to spring and autumn snows which make that fertilizer available to plants either just starting top growth or sending food down to their roots in preparation for winter dormancy. Expanding the definition to include the rain from summer thunderstorms makes sense because the “poor man’s fertilizer” of nitrates formed in the atmosphere comes down then in torrents, releasing far more than the trickle from melting snow, but the nitrates for greening up farmers’ fields and homeowners’ gardens is every bit as free and as welcome.

People and animals would no doubt rather do without all the drama accompanying the rains from thunderstorms. An ordinary sort of rain shower, however, does not produce the amount of nitrates for fertilizing plants that a raging thunderstorm can make in its electrical transformation of nitrogen into nitrates. Plain nitrogen, even though it is listed as such on commercial products as a fertilizer, is not the actual chemical used. Plants cannot do anything with plain nitrogen, nice as that would be since it is the most abundant constituent in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air around us. To make anything of all that nitrogen, plants need it transformed into nitrates, and while rain and snow gently falling provide some, the lightning from a thunderstorm creates nitrates in abundance.


Albert Bierstadt - Buffalo Trail, The Impending Storm
Buffalo Trail: The Impending Storm, an 1869 painting by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

 

Because a thunderstorm can drench an area with over an inch of rain per hour, many of the nitrates it produces run off into streams and rivers before providing any benefit to plants on land. This fertilizer runoff becomes more of a problem when it is increased by contributions from people who either added fertilizer to the land themselves, or dumped it into the atmosphere as a byproduct of their manufacturing and energy production. Sulfuric and nitrous oxide emissions from industry and vehicles produce particulate pollution that hangs in the air until it comes down in solution as acid rain, which is also heavy with nitrates. It is the countryside downwind of industry and heavily populated areas that suffers the worst effects of this excess of nitrates. For farmers and gardeners downwind, thunderstorms produce too much of a good thing.

For all the damage thunderstorms can do, from wreaking havoc on home electronics to pelting livestock and crops with hail, they also provide benefits by fertilizing the soil and cleaning the air. Native Americans were well aware of the duality in thunderstorms, and tried to take the bad in stride with the good. Part of staying safe during a storm comes from maintaining a healthy respect for its destructive potential, and then part of enjoying life comes from stepping outside after the storm has passed and taking in the fresh smells and sights of rejuvenation.
— Izzy

 

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Change at the Grass Roots

 

It may seem like hyperbole to compare growing a lawn with smoking (not combining the two, as in smoking grass), but when weighing the environmental and health effects of both rather useless activities, they may not be all that dissimilar. A lawn is purely ornamental and serves no practical purpose when it is not used as pasture for grazing animals. Deer may come out of the woods to clip parts of a suburban lawn, but for the most part keeping a lawn within the height limits deemed proper by neighbors is left up to the homeowner. Anything higher than about six inches meets with disapproval from neighbors and, in the case of a homeowners association rules, may merit a written slap on the wrist.

 

There was a time not long ago when most people smoked, and smoked everywhere. Movies of contemporary stories from the 1940s and 1950s showed actors portraying their characters as human chimneys. Few people thought much of it up until 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Even then, it took another generation for the momentum of social disapproval of smoking to build to a tipping point, largely because of the obstructive practices of the tobacco industry. In the matter of lawn growing, the balance is now tipped in favor of the people who dump fertilizers and broad leaf herbicides on their lawns to achieve an ideal of carpeted green perfection, and then burn up fossil fuels in order to keep that exuberant growth clipped to a manicured standard.

20101020 Sheep shepherd at Vistonida lake Glikoneri Rhodope Prefecture Thrace Greece
Sheep, goats, and a shepherd near Lake Vistonida in Thrace, Greece. Photo by Ggia.

Gras
Grass, with buttercups. Photo by Steffen Flor.

Given the information available about the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide runoff, and the deleterious effects on the climate of continued burning of fossil fuels, it seems insane to idealize the perfect lawn and what it can take to achieve perfection. Yet as things stand now, the people with model lawns are the ones who look down on everyone else and appoint themselves as standard bearers. Perhaps if more people understood the destructive effects to their own health and to the environment of all their fussing over lawns, then the balance would start to tip the other way toward saner practices.

When homeowners apply fertilizers and herbicides to their lawns, there is no obvious puff of smoke to notify everyone else of the activity. It is not as obvious then as smoking, and therefore general social disapproval will take a long time to build, and may never build to a tipping point the way it did with smoking. Education will probably be the main factor in changing people’s behavior. There are state laws which require commercial herbicide or pesticide applicators to post signs on lawns they have treated. Those are the 4 inch cards on sticks stuck into lawns, and to the extent that most passersby and neighbors give them any attention, they can easily mistake them as advertisements for the lawn care company.

The opening scene of Blue Velvet, a darkly satirical 1986 film directed by David Lynch. Besides demanding large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides to look their best, lawns gulp huge amounts of water in order to stay green throughout the warmest months.

Most people are away at work when lawn care companies do their treatments, and so they aren’t around to catch a whiff of the cabbage smell of the typical broad leaf herbicide as it drifts around the neighborhood. And of course, the homeowner who does his or her own applications, usually on the weekends when neighbors are also home, does not bother with any formal notifications at all. A neighbor might ask such a homeowner “What’s that smell?” To which the enterprising amateur lawn care enthusiast might reply, without apparent knowledge of or concern about the collateral damage of his or her efforts, “That’s the smell of the green, green grass of home!”
— Izzy

 

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It’s a Dirty Job

 

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
— Genesis 3:19, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Scientists working at Rockefeller University in New York City have isolated a soil bacterium which shows the ability to destroy illness causing bacteria that have developed resistance to other antibiotics, notably the type known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA has been the scourge of nursing homes and hospitals for decades now, where opportunistic infections kill patients weakened by age and other illnesses, and treatment with antibiotics has become ineffective. The discovery of the new antibiotic, called Malacidin, is a major development in the fight against bacterial infections and diseases, which has seen little progress over the last 30 years.


Sir Alexander Fleming, Frs, the Discoverer of Penicillin Art.IWMARTLD4217
A 1944 illustration from the British Imperial War Museum depicting Sir Alexander Fleming at work in his laboratory 16 years after his discovery of the first antibiotic, Penicillin, in 1928.

The breakthrough is the result of an alternative approach to the standard tedious practice of testing antibiotics one at a time against various illnesses, and instead used computers to look at vast numbers of soil microbes for certain antibiotic characteristics and then narrowed down the search progressively. To cast this wide net, the Rockefeller University scientists requested the help of volunteers from around the country in submitting soil samples. The scientists particularly requested soil samples from out of the way places, reasoning that they were more likely to find microbes there for which illness causing bacteria like MRSA had not developed resistance. Places like agricultural fields are more apt to have the usual microbial soil life that has already been tested and tried because it has been in the human food chain for generations.

All of this serves as a reminder that the humble soil beneath our feet is the start and the end of everything. Food, disease and the medicine to fight disease, the foundations of our dwellings, all of it starts and cycles through the soil. Taking care of the soil is taking care of ourselves. Showing no concern for the long term health of the soil and the life inhabiting it by dumping salt producing fertilizers on it year after year in a short term effort to boost crop yields ultimately destroys ourselves because such practices destroy the life in the soil. It becomes sterile, reliant solely on a chemical stew of fertilizer that offers no substantive nutrition. It becomes like the Petri dishes that scientists struggled for years to get soil microbes to grow in, largely unsuccessfully. Now scientists are trying new methods that work within healthy soils, and they are achieving greater success. It’s a continuing battle against newly resistant bacterial strains, but without a reservoir of healthy soil to draw antibiotic reinforcements from the war would already be lost.
— Izzy

 

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Planting for Tomorrow

 

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
― investor Warren Buffett, known as the “Oracle of Omaha”.

If you have to be outside in the heat of a summer day, there is no sweeter relief than the shade of a large, spreading tree. Even staying indoors you can benefit from a shade tree if it helps cool the building you’re in, reducing the need for air conditioning. The first six months of this year have been the second warmest on record in the lower 48 states, after 2012. The National Weather Service accounts for climate data from 1895 onward, and according to their records 2016 was the warmest year of all.

Trees and shade - panoramio
Trees and shade in London, England; photo by TomasEE.
Drought has not developed as widely this year as in the recent past. The northern Plains states and southern Arizona have been hit hardest with drought this year, but elsewhere rainfall has been adequate. When it’s very hot, sufficient rainfall to keep plants, and especially trees, alive is crucial to mitigating high temperatures in the short and long terms, and maintaining trees as counterweights to further warming. A mature shade tree such as an oak can transpire over a hundred gallons of water in a day, drawing it up from it’s roots and losing it to the atmosphere from it’s leaves. Drought stresses trees and makes them vulnerable to pest problems, and if dry weather continues for several years in a row, the decline and death of trees can be due as much to pest damage as to lack of water for metabolic processes.
Summer is not the best time to plant trees because heat stress makes keeping up with watering difficult, but it is a good time to plan for planting in the best season, autumn. Balled and burlapped trees have been grown in a field, dug up with a root ball at least two or three feet wide and tall, and then the root ball wrapped in burlap to retain moisture until replanting. Such trees are tempting to buy because they promise shade sooner since they are bigger than container-grown trees. There are a number of reasons to resist the temptation.

 

Balled and burlapped trees are more often than not never root-pruned in the field, with the result that when the nursery digs up the tree, they cut off almost all the fine, fibrous roots at the outside of the tree’s root zone, and those are the roots which do the bulk of water and nutrient uptake for the tree. Because they are bigger than container-grown trees, balled and burlapped trees are more expensive to purchase. They are also more expensive to maintain for the first several years after replanting because they need intensive care on account of having to regrow fibrous roots. Until then, balled and burlapped trees will often not grow at all, and will even be surpassed in size and vigor in many cases by initially smaller container-grown trees.
Trees provide shade at the plaza
Trees provide shade at the Santa Fe Plaza in New Mexico; photo by WikTalksmart.
The reason is trees grown in containers have all or most of their fibrous roots. You can check this with a gentle tug on the trunk to see if there is some resistance to coming out of the container. Some unscrupulous nurseries will dig undersized field-grown trees and pot them up, knowing they could not sell them as balled and burlapped trees. Such trees will give little resistance to coming out of the container unless one or more of the large anchor roots is stuck in the side. There will be minimal fibrous root development. Another, perhaps simpler way to check for fibrous roots is to brush away some of the potting soil, making sure to replace it (when doing these tests, be gentle and put things back the way they were).
Artist.painting.at.Central.Park.New.York
Artist painting a picture in Central Park, New York City; photo by SpyON.
Whatever tree you buy and however it was grown, when you get it home, dig a ten dollar hole for a five dollar tree, but don’t overdo it or the tree will never try to extend its roots beyond the hole. Give it a little compost in the backfill and keep a light hand on the fertilizer. Water deeply and mulch lightly, and don’t pile the mulch up against the trunk, no matter how many “professional” landscapers you’ve seen do it! For as long as you take care of your tree, keep grass and other plants at least several feet away from the trunk, which will not only reduce competition for water and nutrients, but eliminate the possibility of mechanical damage from mowers and trimmers. Planting the right tree for your location will help reduce its need for extra water as it matures, though when absolutely necessary in the hottest, driest part of the summer, by all means give it water if you can. In time, your tree will reward you or someone in the future with cool relief from summer heat.
― Izzy

 

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Why Worry

 

“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher.”
― from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine.

There is no end to the availability of advice, how-to manuals, and chemical poisons to help gardeners rid their lawns and garden beds of crabgrass and dandelions, two weeds most prevalent in late spring and early summer. Are they weeds? Only the individual gardener can say. If the gardener lives under the watchful eyes of a homeowners’ association, the association will say.

Field of dandelions (5659006546)
A meadow full of dandelions in The Netherlands; photo by Alias 0591 from The Netherlands. A meadow full of crabgrass would not be nearly as beautiful.
The guidelines of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) state that a pest is what the gardener says it is, whether plant or animal, and that each gardener has a tolerance level for pests. Those with zero tolerance spend a fortune and a lot of time pouring poisons on crabgrass and dandelions in an effort to eradicate them. Have they been eradicated? Maybe on a few tiny patches of the planet which are now toxic spill zones.

 

Mow high! That’s the cry which often goes unheeded because some folks don’t like walking through tall grass. Mowing high really does help desirable grass compete with weeds like dandelion and crabgrass, however, and if the grass is kept healthy with applications of compost and lime, so much the better. The main thing is to keep bare spaces to a minimum, because those are the places where weeds can move in and start to take over. Keep the applications of synthetic fertilizers to a minimum, or do without the stuff altogether, because in the long term they contribute to soil toxicity.

What’s a conscientious, organic (or mostly so) gardener to do then in the good old summertime when there are patches of crabgrass and dandelions in the lawn? Well, if an hour’s worth of hand weeding once a week won’t take care of the situation, maybe that mostly organic gardener could consider turning some of that lawn on the property over to some other purpose, so that it’s more manageable. Either way, the situation calls for a more relaxed tolerance level, especially in the summer. A suggested tolerance level would be one that calls for lying in a hammock under a shade tree, drinking from a cool glass of dandelion wine, reading a good book (see above), and listening to the peaceful sound of the crabgrass growing.
― Izzy

From 1988, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, by Bobby McFerrin, with Robin Williams and Bill Irwin along for the clowning.

 

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Good In, Good Out

 

Gardening starts with good soil, and container gardening is even more dependent on quality soil because the plant’s roots are constrained. The container soil has to supply all the minerals and nutrients the plant might need, though the gardener usually has to replenish them at least once during the growing season on account of the original supply leaching away. Spending a little more on quality potting soil is well worth it if quality is indeed what the product delivers. The plants will be healthier and look better if they are flowers, and they will be healthier in themselves and for you if they are vegetables.

 

The best commercial potting soils don’t have synthetically derived fertilizers mixed in, but instead have naturally derived fertilizers which cover a broad spectrum of a plant’s nutritional needs. The difference for plants between potting soils with naturally derived fertilizers and those with synthetically derived fertilizers is like the difference for people between a nutritionally balanced, full meal, and an energy bar or drink. A gardener shopping in the garden center of one of the big home improvement chains is most likely to see options for plain potting soil (cheap), potting soil with synthetic fertilizer mixed in (middling), and the greenwashed version from a major manufacturer such as Scotts, makers of Miracle-Gro (expensive).

 

HandsInSoil
Hands sifting through potting soil in a garden bed; photo by M. Tullottes.

 

The plain potting soil offered at the big chains is often very low quality stuff not worth the savings. The middling priced stuff is better quality soil, but it almost always has synthetic fertilizer mixed in. Paying extra for the greenwashed version is more likely than not giving your money to a corporation that doesn’t need it, but wants to crowd out honest competitors, because that is simply how big corporations operate. They’re cynically manipulating your interest in doing the right thing and your willingness to spend a little more to further that interest. It’s doubtful in that case whether spending the little extra does more for you the consumer than it does for their executives.

 

UNEP Stop Greenwashing Bayer
A protest sign hung over the sign announcing the 2007 International Youth Conference of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Leverkusen, Germany; photo by PhilippM2. The German pharmaceutical company Bayer manufactures neonicotinoid pesticides which have been implicated in the collapse of bee colonies worldwide.

 

There are excellent potting soils available without synthetic fertilizers from honest manufacturers, but chances are you won’t find them at the big home improvement chains. Your best bet is a locally or regionally owned farmers co-operative or garden center. The price will be higher than the green-washed version available at the big chain, but it’s quality will probably be better, and there’s the satisfaction of paying that extra bit to decent people instead of fat cat executives for whom a few dollars more means nothing other than another martini on their expense account. A conscientiously managed local garden center or farmers co-operative is a gardener’s golden nugget amid the commercial tailings of the big chains. The customer service is almost always better at the mom and pop places, and that alone can be worth the higher prices.

 

One purchasing option that people are turning to more and more, even for bulk items like potting soil, is Amazon and other online retailers. They have the widest selection of anybody, and often the best prices even after including the cost of shipping. It’s hard to deny that combination, and then add in the convenience of shopping online and it’s completely understandable why more and more people shop for everything at Amazon. Keep in mind how they treat their employees, however, and balance that with brick and mortar stores, especially the mom and pop ones, where you can see for yourself at least part of the operation and how it is conducted. What you put into the soil shows itself in the plants which grow from it, and what you put into your community will just as surely show itself sooner or later.
― Izzy

 

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Green Grows the Grass

 

Winter dormancy is settling in on lawns almost everywhere but the pampered ones in National Football League stadiums. The groundskeepers who maintain stadium turf have an especially difficult job this time of year because they are staving off the natural tendency of grass to retreat into dormancy and turn brown and stiff as winter approaches. Not only does that look unappealing on television, it is difficult for the players who have to compete on it. If the ground becomes frozen hard, natural turf can be as dangerous to players as the old artificial turf fields which had insufficient cushioning beneath them.

Preparing the pitch at Stamford Bridge
Preparing the pitch with grow lights at Stamford Bridge, London;
own work by TheBlues

Modern NFL stadium natural turf stays green into December and January because groundskeepers take measures to prolong its growing season, from heating systems underneath to grow lights overhead. They effectively keep the grass in a condition most homeowners have not seen in their lawns since September. The “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a memorable phrase evocative of the hard knocks of winter football outdoors in the upper Midwest, but it hardly applies any longer to the actual playing conditions considering modern turf management techniques.

For the average homeowner who looks out at a brown lawn throughout the winter (when it’s not covered in snow), the remedy lies not in trying to replicate the green turf of NFL stadiums. That would require an enormous input of money, time, and effort equivalent to what an NFL franchise invests, albeit considerably scaled down. Better to let the grass go to sleep for winter, but to tuck it in with some lime, some compost, maybe a light application of preferably organic fertilizer, and then a last mowing at a short setting to mulch the last of the fallen tree leaves. For the rest of December and January it’s time to settle into a comfortable chair in the warmth indoors and watch the football games on TV play out on the greener grass of early fall, maybe with snow falling on it for added dramatic effect.
– Izzy

View of Lambeau Field
View of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin;
own work by JL1Row

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