A Pruning Guide for the Squeamish

 

Pruning trees and shrubs correctly is not as difficult as some careful people may think, though pruning incorrectly is as easy as some careless people make it look. First, leave those shears in the shed. Shears are effective at cutting back herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses, but are otherwise detrimental to the health of woody plants because they leave behind stubs. Don’t leave stubs!

Stubs are what is left of a woody twig or branch after the person pruning it has failed to cut it off at the proper place, which is close to a node where it joins the main plant, and instead has cut it haphazardly somewhere along its length. Shears by definition make cuts haphazardly on woody plants, even if at a distance the poor shrub looks neatly trimmed in shapes that some people find pleasing. Who hasn’t looked at a shrub minding its own business and thought, “That bush would be much more attractive shaped like a cube”? After several swipes of the shears, the bush appears neatly cubed from a distance, but upon closer inspection it will be evident it has suffered numerous wounds it will have trouble healing, if it can do so at all. Don’t leave stubs!


Treelion M45
Hand pruners – or secateurs – in use. Photo by Pellencgroup. The cut being made in the photo is too far out along the branch to be a proper pruning cut. It could be a preliminary cut intended to take away most of the weight of the branch to reduce the possibility of bark tearing away from the trunk when the branch falls loose. In that case, the final pruning cut should be close to – but not flush with – the trunk, as shown with the cut a bit higher on the trunk.

There are three principle reasons for pruning trees and shrubs, in descending order of importance.

  1. To preserve the safety and well-being of people, other animals, and property. Obviously, this applies primarily to trees, since shrubs are typically less capable of menace.
  2. To preserve or improve the health of the plant being pruned, such as by removing dead wood and crossing branches.
  3. Aesthetics, which of course is in the eye of the beholder, though the beholder should remain mindful of the precedence of reasons one and two, and of the vital importance of not leaving stubs.

Timing can be another critical aspect of pruning, and it can be confusing in light of differing requirements from plant to plant, with some requirements relevant to plant health and others to aesthetics, as in promoting or preserving flowering. In areas of the country with winter freezes, however, there is one general rule applicable to avoiding injury or weakening of a woody plant, and that is to refrain from any major pruning in the weeks leading up to the first frost in late summer and early autumn. The reason is that pruning encourages new growth, and tender new growth is susceptible to cold injury. The results are not apt to be catastrophic for the plant, but it will have wasted valuable energy on damaged top growth at a time of year when it would be healthier for it to be storing energy in its roots. It’s like shaking a person who wants to go to sleep.

Later in the year, in winter and especially in late winter, it is alright to perform major pruning on many woody plants because they are dormant. The plant’s hormones will not awaken it to push out new growth at that inopportune time. The exception is a sappy plant such as a maple tree. As anyone knows who has ever tapped a sugar maple tree for maple syrup, a maple produces sap copiously in late winter and early spring, and drawing too much of it at one time, as occurs in cutting off a major limb, will weaken the tree. It’s better to leave pruning of sappy plants until summer, when they will only dribble, and not gush, from wounds.



These are all great bits from a first series episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but the portion relevant to this post begins at the 9:46 mark of the video.

 

If it seems this language of pruning is evocative of surgery on humans and other animals, the good reason for it is that the two procedures are more alike than different in their effects, and it is helpful to be aware when pruning that you are making cuts into a living organism. Too many people with shears, particularly the mechanical kind, appear to proceed blithely without any awareness that their hedges and foundation plantings are composed of living organisms that must expend energy recovering from an assault with carelessly wielded cutting implements.

As for appearance, while there are few people who can carry off the page boy haircut look successfully, there are for some bewildering reason an awful lot of people who think the plant equivalent of that haircut looks just dandy on their shrubs. If the shrubs themselves could speak, they might express a preference to be left alone to allow their natural beauty to shine through, with only an occasional light touch from a deft hand to help them look their best. Most of all, to keep trees and shrubs beauteous and robust, don’t leave stubs!
— Izzy

 

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Timing Is Nearly Everything

 

Early autumn used to be the best time to sow seeds of cool weather grasses in most of the country, and early spring was the best time to sow seeds of warm weather grasses, primarily in the South. There were local variations on what kind of grass seed to sow where, and as always with gardening, rules of thumb were not carved in granite. Since the timing of early autumn and early spring vary around the country, it might be simpler to consider the Mid-Atlantic states as an example, where early autumn sowing was best between September 1 and October 15, and early spring sowing was best between March 1 and April 15.

 

In the twentieth century, much of the Mid-Atlantic region was in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) hardiness zones 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. The southern part of the region was also in the transition zone for cool weather and warm weather grasses. Gardeners and landscapers typically planted both types of grass and sowed grass seed of both types in spring or fall as they preferred, though most found the greatest success with cool weather grass seed sown in the fall. That has all changed noticeably over the past 30 years and it is well past time for prudent gardeners and landscapers to adjust to the new climate.

F. W. Bolgiano, seedsmen have won confidence for ten years (16186099958)
F.W. Bolgiano, a grass seed company based in Washington, D.C., in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region, recommended in their 1899 brochure sowing a blend of seed types in spring and autumn, though without specific details on the seeds or the timing. Photo scan from the digitized illustrations collection of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The USDA adjusted its hardiness zone map in 2012, moving all of them north from where they were in the 1990 map. The Mid-Atlantic is now covered by zones 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Gardeners being students of nature, they didn’t really need the USDA to tell them what was happening with their plants and how things had changed. Still, it can be hard to set aside old habits tied to the calendar, such as sowing and planting times. Adjusting to changes in the types of plants that will do well in a particular area is also difficult and can take some getting used to, but people must adjust or they will see their time and efforts wasted on planting the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than doing the opposite as good practices have always dictated.

Farmers know this because their livelihood depends on it. Professional landscapers are beginning to understand it as well, though in many cases they perform their work on behalf of well-to-do clients who don’t necessarily care about taking a loss on forcing a favored plant to survive. The landscapers themselves need to operate at a profit, but their clients may not mind throwing good money after bad in keeping a zone 5 plant alive in what has become a zone 6 environment. Home gardeners typically don’t have such resources, and often have better sense. For years they sowed seed of tall fescue, a cool weather grass well suited to Mid-Atlantic growing conditions, and they had success sowing it between September 1 and October 15.

Lawn Maintenance Sign At RHS Wisley Garden Surrey UK
Sign at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Wisley Garden in the county of Surrey, south of London, England. Photo by Si Griffiths.

But not anymore. Now it is best to wait at least two weeks. Now the season lasts from September 15 to October 31. There may even be little harm in sowing grass seed right up to Thanksgiving in the southern portion of the Mid-Atlantic region. It could also be time to reconsider whether to keep up a cool weather grass lawn at all. Perhaps it’s better to plant Zoysia grass, or to let the bermuda grass take over, which it has been trying to do for decades now anyway, creeping into everything, especially in the heat of high summer, when the tall fescue faints in the hot weather without extra water to sustain it. Maybe now the favored time for sowing grass seed should be the early, early spring, from February 15 to March 31, and maybe that grass seed should be of warm weather grasses. Gardeners in the North who have friends and relatives in the South will have to ask those gardeners to pass along their rules of thumb for tending new plants in these new times.
— 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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Love of Life

 

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
— William Blake (1757-1827), Auguries of Innocence

Biophilia – love of life – is a term popularized by the American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson in his research and books of the last two decades of the twentieth century. Mr. Wilson was interested in how humans appear to require some connection with nature no matter how much the modern world tends to divorce them from that connection. City dwellers in particular may be live amidst steel and concrete structures to such an extent that they never step on grass in the course of an average day, but they still will find comfort at home in tending a few houseplants and a pet or two. Mr. Wilson proposed that the need to maintain a connection with nature was so pervasive in humans that it went beyond culture to genetics, and was therefore innate and undeniable. Humans may pretend to be above nature and separate from it, but their genetics and behavior said otherwise.


Central Park-from Rock Center2
Looking north at Central Park from the top of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. 2009 photo by Piotr Kruczek.

Scientific research since then has confirmed Mr. Wilson’s hypothesis, some of it confirming common sense notions such as how hospital patients with window views of trees and greenery appeared to recover faster than ones with a view of the building next door. The idea of biophilia itself appeals to common sense, but science needs to quantify things, and that’s for the best because there have after all been other notions in the past which seemed common sense, such as the Sun revolving around the Earth. Lately there has been a resurgence in belief that the Earth is flat, though it’s hard to tell just how seriously Flat Earthers expect to be taken by everyone else, or even by themselves.

Everyday proof of biophilia, however, seems so commonplace that it is hard to refute. Still, there are people who live for making their environment as sterile and devoid of nature as possible, and it seems there are more of them now than ever. Children especially seem to have withdrawn from nature both on their own and because of their parents’ protective instincts. Children now spend an inordinate amount of their time in front of screens, and much of the remainder of their time is structured education or play. They are seldom left on their own to scratch around in the dirt in their backyards and observe the ants at work, as Edward O. Wilson himself did for countless hours as a youngster and, indeed, as an adult, since his specialty as a biologist has been myrmecology, the study of ants.

Central Park west
A western part of the 843 acres of Central Park in New York City. Recent appraisals of the value of Central Park’s 1 and 1/4 square miles of prime real estate in the middle of Manhattan are well over $500 billion. May biophilia influence New Yorkers for generations to come so that they continue to prize Central Park for its connection to nature rather than its speculative value in dollars. Photo by Ad Meskens.

The steep drop in hands-on discovery of nature among the latest generation does not bode well for future conservation measures when those children grow up and start making their own decisions. Reading about a tree in a book can take a person only so far without the furtherance of education granted by resting under the shade of a tree on a hot day. Even the tactile act of reading a paper book, its pages made from trees, gives the senses a greater depth and breadth of perception than reading from an electronic screen. We are animals, with the senses of animals, and we engage the world through those senses every bit as much as we engage it with our brains, even when we are cut off from nature. But with a lack of input from our senses our decisions about the natural world are likely ill-informed, and much as we might try to help conserve animals, plants, and resources, we are not doing as much as we could because they are not part of our everyday world. How can you love the natural world which supports you if you cut yourself off from it and avoid embracing it with not only your intelligence, but with all your senses so that you can feel it as well as know it, and understand thereby you are a part of it and not separate from it?
— Izzy

 

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On Edging

 

At mid-winter it’s still too soon to start preparing garden beds for spring planting, even in areas of the country that aren’t under permafrost. There are cleanup tasks, as always, and if the garden beds are in need of edging this would be a good time to do it as long as the soil isn’t too mucky and hard to work. For gardeners who will do the work themselves, the kind of edging to do, or whether or not edging is desirable, depends on tolerance for heavy labor. Those easy-to-install plastic edging strips are also quickly and easily heaved out of the ground by frost and soon become useless.

Flowers, Regent's Park, London - DSC07043
Garden vase, flower beds, and stone edgings in the Avenue Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, in July 2010. Photo by Rept0n1x.

Almost every heavy duty and reasonably attractive garden edging is going to take back breaking labor to install, though it’s true that installation may last a lifetime. There does appear to be one fair compromise between heavy labor, appearance, and durability and cost of the installation, which is to use a low profile nylon no-dig edging material that is staked down on the grass side of an edge made up of paver blocks laid on fast setting concrete. Dramatically decreasing the preparation work takes out much of the heavy labor, leaving only the lifting and setting of paver blocks, which can weigh up to 25 pounds apiece, and wrangling 50 pound bags of concrete mix.


Roger Cook of This Old House gives an overview of the easier ways to edge.
The durability of such edging can be increased by resorting to some of the shovel work and use of drainage rock or sand that is the method for standard paver installation. Without a drainage base under the concrete, no-dig edging, and paver blocks, there will inevitably be some cracking of the concrete and consequent heaving of the materials. As mentioned earlier, however, this type of installation is a compromise between all of the elements of an edging job, and is particularly intended to cut down on back breaking shovel work and cost of additional materials. The best way to ensure the eventual frost heaving does not render the edging completely useless and unattractive is to deploy paver blocks that are as large and as heavy as possible without themselves being back breaking.

No-dig gardening is a method that has been gaining adherents for over a half century now, and it makes sense for gardeners interested in saving themselves some labor and possible injury to apply the same method elsewhere when possible, such as in edging garden beds. The simplest method of edging, and certainly the cheapest, requires digging an edge straight down three or four inches into the lawn, and then shaving that edge back in a slope toward the garden bed. This presents an attractive edge for a few months, but grass and weeds from the lawn inevitably infiltrate the bed, muddying the clean line of the edge, with the result that the gardener has to renew a cut edge at least once a year to keep it looking its best. That is obviously the opposite of no-dig gardening.

Mark Powers of This Old House demonstrates the full on labor and expense method of edging a garden bed. The editing makes the job look easier than it is, and while the edge looks great, this method is only for the most dedicated gardener.
A gardener who is healthy and strong and unafraid of hard work can certainly install a beautiful and durable garden bed edge and stand back to admire it as a job well done when it’s finished. The extensive materials required for a really top notch installation may cost quite a lot, but since the goal is lifetime durability, then the cost is a one time expense. For the gardener who may not be entirely healthy, or very strong, or interested in expending enormous energy in the garden, there are easier and cheaper edging alternatives, but such a gardener should beware foolishly wasting money and time on some of them advertised as cheap and easy.


No-dig edging seems a reasonable compromise, though one thing to be aware of when installing an edge on top of the ground rather than level with it is to avoid grading soil down from the top of the paver blocks toward a building. To avoid improper drainage toward a building, soil should always grade away from it. It would appear to be a rather obvious error to avoid in theory, but it is an error too often made in practice, though usually gradually over a long time. That means there may still be some shovel work necessary to finesse a no-dig edging installation. It would be nearly impossible to do every job in the garden without wielding a shovel at all, though some can thankfully be made easier on the gardener’s back.
— Izzy

Men-at-work-148408
Pause from Work, a road sign diagram posted to Pixabay with the Portuguese caption Pausa no Trabalho.

 

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Moles and Voles and Shrews – Oh, My!

 

It can be upsetting for a gardener or homeowner to see mounds of turned soil and sinuously trailing lumps in a lawn that has taken a lot of human care and maintenance over a long, hot summer. Tunneling moles! It can be hard to realize that the little critters, which in the eastern United States most likely go by the name Scalopus aquaticus, are in fact paying you a compliment by visiting your yard to partake of your tasty vittles. You apparently have grubs and earthworms in abundance, signs of a healthy lawn ecosystem, and the moles have appeared to take advantage of the situation.

 

When moles eat earthworms, they may not be doing you such a great favor since earthworms enhance soil fertility, but they definitely help out by eating the grubs which would otherwise be munching on the roots of your carefully tended grass. There is collateral damage certainly, such as some brown patches in the lawn where the moles have damaged grass roots in their zealous search for grubs, and also the unsightliness to human eyes of the lumps they raise in the lawn because of their tunneling. Rest easy, because the tunnels aerate the soil and will settle back in time.

Wind in the Willows pg 65
In Chapter 3 of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, called “The Wild Wood”, timid Mole ventures out on his own into the woods and has a scary time. Illustration from the 1913 edition by Paul Bransom.

Lawn aerator attachment on a garden tiller
Lawn aerator attachment on a garden tiller. Photo by Lovesgreenlawn. Moles happily do the same work at no charge.

People attribute a lot of the damage they see in their plants and bulbs to moles, but really the damage is mostly the work of voles and shrews. Most moles are mostly insectivorous: they usually don’t eat plants. Voles and shrews, on the other hand, will eat just about anything given the chance, though they largely stick to a vegetarian diet. Voles and shrews will also take advantage of the tunnels that moles industriously create. This can make little difference to a gardener who notices a tunnel leading to a freshly planted tulip bed. Arguing before the court of that gardener’s censorious gaze that a mole excavated the tunnel in innocent pursuit of grubs, but it was the voles and shrews who exploited its proximity to the tulip beds to pad their own provisions, often makes no headway with the gardener, who declares war on the oblivious mole.

Traps, poisons, and medieval implements of execution are all pointless and expensive wastes of time and money. You have what moles want, and if after much effort and expense you manage to remove your nemesis from the premises, another will come along shortly to take his or her place. Taking away what the moles want, which means negating the naturally derived soil fertility that earthworms and grubs dig, would involve essentially turning your lawn into the soulless desert waste of a golf course. Green above by virtue of chemicals, but below, in the soil, the home of practically no creatures.

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, Jack Haley as The Tin Man, Ray Bolger as The Scarecrow, Bert Lahr as The Cowardly Lion, and Terry the dog, as Toto, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Let the moles be, and thank them for their service. Watch out for the voles and shrews, however, and do what you can to mitigate the damage they cause. Get a cat, if that is suitable for you and the cat, and the neighborhood you both live in. Meanwhile, keep mulch and, if possible, snow away from tree trunks, because that denies cover to those creatures while they gnaw at the bark. Clean up leaf litter and brush piles where it seems sensible that these are nesting places and cover for runways. Most of all, let the grass grow to 3 or 4 inches, which should keep the lawn healthier overall, and make those lumps in the lawn less noticeable and not worth fretting about.
― Izzy

 

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Too Much of a Good Thing

 

Sugar can be derived from numerous plants, including beets, corn, and the fruit of trees, but it has come into its own since the Middle Ages in Europe as the refined product of the sugarcane plant, a perennial grass. The plant originated in New Guinea, and from there traders introduced to Asia, where it eventually found its way to southern Europe by way of Arab merchants. As noted from its origin, the plant grows in tropical or sub tropical climates. Europeans quickly developed a taste for refined sugar, but since the plant would not grow well in Europe or northern Africa, they needed to find either another source or another place to grow, or forever be at the mercy of Arab merchants, who kept the price high.

When European explorers stumbled upon the New World in their search for a trade route to the Far East that bypassed Arab middlemen, they were interested in exploiting sugar resources as much as spices. The tropical and sub tropical bands of the New World – the Caribbean, much of eastern South America, Central America, and the far southeastern portion of North America – turned out to be well suited for raising sugarcane. The problem was finding a suitably cheap labor source for the backbreaking and dangerous labor involved in sugarcane cultivation as well as refinement. The Europeans, after exhausting the Native Americans as a labor source, turned to Africa as a source of slave labor.


There were other plantation crops that Europeans raised in the New World exploiting slave labor, such as tobacco (a plant native to the western hemisphere) and cotton, but sugar was the big money maker for them, the linchpin of Atlantic trade from the 1500s well into the 1800s. Sugar grown on plantations in the New World traveled, some in the form of rum, to northeastern ports of North America and then on to Europe, where it was traded for manufactured goods; some of the manufactured goods then were traded in Africa for slaves, who were loaded onto ships destined for plantations in the New World, their voyage across the Atlantic being known as the Middle Passage of this triangle of trade. Some didn’t survive the voyage, and of the ones who did, many suffered abominably under harsh conditions in the sugar growing regions and elsewhere.

No such thing as too much (4578918974)
Pancakes with syrup, or syrup with pancakes? Photo by jeffreyw.

Hundreds of years later, sugar is still exacting a toll from poor black people, as well as poor and working class people generally. The European quest for cheap sugar succeeded all too well. Now it’s found in far too many supermarket foods and beverages, where in the case of processed foods it masks the loss of wholesome flavors. Sugary beverages like soda and many fruit drinks are especially egregious sources of the endocrine disrupting carbohydrates present in refined sugar that can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. These processed foods are easy to prepare and are relatively cheap and, because of the sugar in them, to some people they taste good enough.

“Big Rock Candy Mountain”, first recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928, is about a hobo’s idea of paradise. McClintock claimed to have written the song in 1895, based on tales from his youth hoboing through the United States. McClintock’s 1928 recording was used by Ethan and Joel Coen at the beginning of their 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

People could cut back their consumption of processed foods, and certainly they could drop sugary sodas and fruit drinks out of their diet and not lose any essential nutrients. People can use will power and self control, even though there is evidence that sugar’s effects on their health are more insidious than industry mouthpieces would have everyone believe. People can do all those things. But they don’t. Why not?

What if crack cocaine were as cheap as sugar? How about cigarettes? Opioids? What levels of consumption would we encounter then among the general population, and among the poor and working classes specifically? All those substances stimulate pleasure centers in the human brain, just like a good hit of sugar does in a smaller way, and all are ultimately destructive in high enough doses. Is sugar as destructive as those other addictive substances? No, not in the short term, and it would be ridiculous to equate a cookie with a hit of cocaine. In the long run, however, over the course of ten, twenty, or thirty years, sugar consumption at modern American levels of a hundred pounds or more per person per year is proving destructive enough. Time to turn some of that exhausted soil in the tropics over from growing monocultures of sugarcane for export to growing fruits and vegetables the locals could consume for themselves. We could easily cut back from two or three lumps of sugar to just one.
― Izzy

 

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