october 6, 2011     organic & conventional

          Rodale Study  Rodale 3   Rodale 2

As I breathe a sigh of relief for the gorgeous weather we're supposed to have tomorrow for our open house at the garden, a brief note about the results of a study validating the efficacy of organic gardening.  According a 30-year program called the Farming Systems Trial that was conducted by the Rodale Institute, sustainable agriculture not only is comparable to "conventional" methods in yield but actually superior, along with many other long-term benefits:

-- Organic yield match conventional yields.

-- Organic outperforms ocnventional in years of drought.

-- Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soild organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.

-- Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient.

-- Conventional systems produce 40% more grennhouse gases.

-- Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional

I doubt whether this is a surprise to anyone in the organic farming community, but the lengthy span and thoroughness of Rodale's study hopefully will make it more difficult to dismiss sustainable horticulture as a noble-but-unrealistic dream -- or worse, that it's an elitist luxury.  Cheers to all organic farmers as they wind down another growing season!

september 25, 2011     volunteers

Volunteers 1  Volunteers 2   Volunteers 3

It’s been a couple of weeks since a group of students, along with Tamara Kenney from the college’s Center for Community, came out to the garden as part of Geneseo’s “100 Volunteers” event.  The pictures she sent me might look a little strange because most of the people in them are wearing identical t-shirts—a collective identity we associate with the military, sports teams, fast-food employees, and so on.  It would be misleading, however, to dismiss such “day of service” events as irrelevant to sustainable agriculture (whose current fashion vibe is more willfully eclectic).

For one thing, given the almost total separation of Americans from the food they eat, a few hours of weeding/composting/planting often represents a new experience and a moment of opportunity.  By my own unscientific count, the volunteers included at least one passionate veggie-garden geek, a couple who had helped out in parents’ gardens or were more familiar with flowers, and a majority willing to give things a shot.  I think this pretty much mirrors the American population, with the important difference being that volunteers are putting themselves out there in a spirit of communitariansim.

The rise of community gardens, whether taking the form of individual family plots or a single collective farm, has recognized in all of them this social element.  The American Community Gardening Association defines itself very broadly—“Any piece of land gardened by a group of people”—and this jibes with our own experience that it’s not primarily about the commerce, the free veggies, or even a desire to live more sutainably.  It’s more a strange mix of seeing the same people and plants repeatedly, of taking root as it were.  I can recall many cases of a person dropping by for the first time & thinking to myself, “They’re never coming back.”  But in some of those cases I was wrong, wrong, wrong…that person for whatever reason went on to become a dedicated, regular gardener.  You just never know. 

Hard-core gardeners will recognize that the title of this post is a pun: in agriculture, a “volunteer” is a plant that grows without having been sown by the farmer, arriving in its location via the wind, bird droppings, or what have you.  Volunteer plants don’t always run true to type.  As it happens, on the day I’m describing we noticed that a volunteer tomato vine (probably Sun Gold) was growing in our compost pile, and enjoyed a few unexpected fruit.  So too, perhaps, with students: anyone who has taken the first step to do something in  the spirit of volunteerism already has traveled a great distance.

Harvested: cilantro, basil, tomatoes, squash, beets, carrots, chard, nasturtiums, tomatillos, peppers.

Planted: arugula, radishes, lettuce, mesclun, beets, and many more loads of compost.

Notes: planning for the garden open house/fundraiser, to be held Friday 10/7, is in swing.  Check back with Allison to see whether we have any additonal donations for raffle.  Also need to set up a time for canning workshop.  This year we really need to order seeds ASAP, so as to avoid stock being sold out--check into that!  "Seeding the Future" conference at Dickinson College is on October 14-15; a group of eight will be attending.

august 23, 2011     varmints


This summer has seen the return of rabbits, along with deer, to our menu of gardening adventures.  Can it really be three years since our carrot tops were getting nipped?  This time, it was pole beans, bush beans, and beet tops -- quite a hearty buffet as gardeners crawled on hand and knee seeking some point of entry around the fence.  Inept Elmer Fudd scenes came to mind.  Eventually a gap was discovered under the garden gate due to settling, but by then the havoc was widespread and now deer were getting a piece of the action: they had learned how to knock down the lighweight "deer fence" netting.  One student suggested that we urinate around the fence perimeter to deter them; others patiently helped mend the fence.  Eventually it became clear that our fence needed an upgrade, about which more to come in a future post.

Throughout these episodes I found myself thinking about the folk tradition of wily, pesky rabbits -- like those shown above -- and their similarity to the Br'er Rabbit tales.  It's hard to say whether those stories orginated in Africa, or in Native American Creek or Cherokee culture; here's one basic overview of the question.  The temptation is to think that they're universal.  Then I read about how, in European cultures, there is a tradtion of wily hares extending back into the middle ages and even 6th-century Buddhist temples.  According to Terry Windling, our ambivalence about modern-day bunnies (or varmints) is an old one:

In many mythic traditions, these animals were archetypal symbols of femininity, associated with the lunar cycle, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. But if we dig a little deeper into their stories we find that they are also contradictory, paradoxical creatures: symbols of both cleverness and foolishness, of femininity and androgny, of cowardice and courage, of rampant sexuality and virginal purity. In some lands, Hare is the messenger of the Great Goddess, moving by moonlight between the human world and the realm of the gods; in other lands he is a god himself, wily deceiver and sacred world creator rolled into one.

Windling even observes that "three hares" iconography in some churches seems to predate Christian figurations of the trinity.  It was nice to have something else to think about besides all of the vegetables disappearing!  Still, if you're only a casual consumer of foods whose foraging takes place at Wegmans, it's hard to describe the mingled thrill, anger, and laughter that occurs when you see a rabbit scampering away from your garden early in the morning.

Harvested: beets, collards, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, chard, tomatillos, herbs, flowers, onions, peppers.

Planted: lettuce, spinach, kale, beets, arugula, and LOTS of compost.

Notes: Time for a fence-raising.  The gate is completed & we have money promised for black locust poles; now we need to raise capital for a sturdier fencing material.  Planning for fund-raiser commences.  On Saturday, 9/10 a group of first-year Geneseo students will be in the garden as part of a community service project -- reclaim back two garlic beds + potato bed, compost, plant some fall crops.  Clear weeds out of Arielle's squash garden so that we can see what's growing!  Opening informational meeting in a couple of weeks?

July 13, 2011     trophy shots

 Hemingway        Garlic Hunters    

Recently we harvested this year's garlic and it occurred to me that some sort of memento was necessary -- after all, something like 160 cloves had been planted, mulched, watered, weeded, forked, pulled, trimmed, culled, and distributed.  What sort of picture to snap?  One genre of photograph is the "veggie porn" shot familiar from county fairs & seed catalogues, the produce so luscious you want to devour it.  I opted instead for a gardenside trophy shot.  As you can see, our event wasn't exactly like Hemingway posing alongside his marlin or hunters with their deer.  For one thing, these earlier genre photographs exalt male fortitude.  Even a cerebral, modern-day man like Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma gets caught up in the excitement of bringing home the (wild) bacon when he picks up a gun.  Despite a long history of men involved in agriculture, within the hierarchy of American film Westerns they rank considerably lower than merchants, ranchers, sheriffs, and of course inscrutable gunfighters.  Sooo... women wielding broadforks and pruning scissors, however stubborn the garlic to extract from dried-clay earth, just aren't in the same mythical pantheon.

Or so it would seem.  Back in 1913 the American writer Willa Cather went about creating a protagonist, Alexandra Bergson, who cross-pollinated agricultural and gender DNA codes.  In her novel O Pioneers! Alexandra wears a man's ulster coat, oversees a bustling kitchen of immigrant girls, participates as an equal in the real estate market, feels horticultural insemination within herself, and emerges as something of an artist figure:

When you go out of the house into the flower garden, there you feel again the order and fine arrangement manifest all over the great farm; in the fencing and hedging, in the windbreaks and sheds,m in the symmetrical pasture ponds, planted with scrub willows to give shade to the cattle in fly-time.  There is even a white row of beehives in the orchard, under the walnut trees.  You feel that, properly, Alexandra's house is the big out-of-doors, and that it is in the soil that she expresses herself best. 

In other words, she doesn't type easily when it comes either to gender or to agriculture.  When Alexandra's brothers attempt to assert that "the property of a family belongs to the men of the family," she retorts that she'll "do exactly as I please with the rest of my land, boys."  Boys!  Gotta love it... Without giving too much away, in Cather's novel guns remain the serpent in this American Eden yet their possession doesn't necessarily confer any power; if anything, they're associated with a sort of boyish obliviousness.  If you're looking for something to read, O Pioneers! is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and short!

Harvested: garlic (see above), summer squash, beets, onions, sugar snap peas, herbs, potatoes, chard.

Planted: another attempt at lettuce and spinach, beets, chard, carrots, squash.

Notes: battle with the rabbits continues.  Casualties include all bean crops, beet tops, spinach, and carrot tops.  Fence needs replacement; it's possible that setting of the door had allowed enough space for infiltration.  Very dry summer, as we all know in Western NY, and so anything involving leaves and/or cool-weather conditions has suffered.  This brings home the need for a major layer of organic material to the soil...

June 12, 2011     Tanked

Garden 6-12-11   Water 1   Water 2

After considering our water situation it occurred to me that pictures might be a good idea.  The first photograph is of our garden this morning, with Chinese mustard greens in the foreground, pole beans and garlic in the background.  Everything is growing pretty well.  This is due to the hard work of community gardeners, who normally would be getting it from the standpipe in the second picture--but, as you can see, flags are marking the now-obstructed spigot to which a new line will be laid.  The third picture shows a tank temporarily supplying us with water until the line is put in.

Most Americans don't think very often about water: walk to a tap and turn it on.  It's only when a delivery system fails that the (lack of) infrastructure becomes visible.  The pictures above, as it happens, are related to three traditional methods humans have relied upon for bringing water to vegetables.  The first is rain, obviously subject to irregular supply but definitely the easiest.  Until you've gardened you have no idea how welcome rain can be!  The second method involves use of natural basins like Conesus Lake (which supplies SUNY-Geneseo and our garden), aqueducts, underground water mains, and more--it's pretty easy to get geeked on how ingenious waterworks are and all the labor it took to construct them.  For example, the City of Rochester's water supply travels some 30 miles from Hemlock Lake.  The third picture is a modern-day version of a storage system called cisterns, leakproof tanks--usually underground--that capture rainwater for later use.  Cisterns are beginning to make a comeback for residential use amongst eco-hipsters, and they offer interesting possibilities for small-scale gardening. 

In America, of course, individual homes or entire communities also drill wells to access aquifers as another source of stored rainwater.  If you live in New York, especially the Southern Tier, recently you may have become more knowledgeable about well water due to proposed hydrofracking--hydraulic fracturing of underground shale to gain access to natural gas--and its implication in surface water and aquifer pollution.  At the insane edge of water supply "solutions" is the energy-intensive process of seawater desalinization.  All of this probably wouldn't have been on my mind had the spigot been working, but such is the nature of water.  If you'd like to learn more about the watershed in which you live, two reports are here and here.  As to the garden....

Harvested: garlic scapes.

Planted: squash, edible flowers.

Notes: If you're wanting to keep track of which tomatoes are doing best this year, here are the varieties seen as you're facing east toward Route 20A:

Bed 3.1

                                                     Isis Candy                                 Sun Gold

     Red Zebra   ?? Mystery tomato??                           Black Prince                              Supersweet 100


Bed 3.4 (bamboo teepee)

     Brown Berry     Supersweet 100

     Peace Vine         Sun Gold


Here's what is planted in the mounds as you face south:

     Spaghetti                        Delicata               Musk Melon

       Sweet Dumpling            Butternut            Gourd

June 7, 2011     labor

Windmill 1     Windmill 2

This has been an interesting spring.  Due to record rainfall in Western New York during April & May, we've only recently been able to do much work in the community garden, and so find ourselves scrambling to catch up (along with many other farmers).  Now it's turning hot, and the water main out to our garden is blocked; we find ourselves carting in water via portages, student cars, and--most recently--a water tank on loan from Geneseo's grounds & landscaping folks until a new water main can be laid.  Meanwhile, as we have been attempting to keep the various seedlings & starts hydrated, no such effort has been necessary for the continued growth of numerous weeds.  All of which has had the effect of making visible the hard work of cultivating food.

Wander into the Geneseo Wegmans and labor consists, seemingly, of exerting one's willpower not to purchase all of the gleaming produce and other impulse-driven offerings.  Maybe you're momentarily conscious of the work it has cost you to swipe a plastic card and pay for the purchases.  Yet obviously, at some level--usually a guilt-inducing level--we're all aware that many people have labored to produce our food.  A poem by Tom Wayman speaks to this dynamic:

Tom Wayman, "Picketing  Supermarkets"

Because all this food is grown in the store,
do not take the leaflet.
Cabbages, broccoli, and tomatoes
are raised at night in the aisles.
Milk is brewed in the rear storage areas,
beef produced in vats in the basement.
Do not take the leaflet.

Peanut butter and soft drinks
are made fresh each morning by store employees.
Our oranges and grapes
are so fine and round
that when held up to the light they cast no shadow.
Do not take the leaflet.

And should you take one,
do not believe it.

This chain of stores has no connection
with anyone growing food someplace else.
Do not believe it.

The sound here is Muzak, for your enjoyment,
it is not the sound of children crying.
There is a lady offering samples
to mark Canada Cheese Month.
There is no dark-skinned man with black hair
beside her
wanting to show you the inside of a coffin.
You would not have to look if there was.
And there are no Nicaraguan heroes
in any way connected with the bananas.

Pay no attention to these people.
The manager is a citizen.
All this food was grown in the store.

I think that there's a lot to be learned from the repetitive work of watering vegetables by hand, especially without the lawn-and-garden conveniences we are used to--like sprinklers, or pressurized water systems.  An organization in Rochester called Water for Sudan makes the point that, in many cultures, traditionally it is women who collect water often miles away.  This makes it virtually impossible for them to find time for schooling.  Imagine what would happen if Geneseo students and faculty, in addition to their academic studies, also had to grow their own food.  What would change in our conception of work?  Carrying water also teaches us how heavy it is.  A five-gallon jug weighs 40 pounds, a fraction of which will end up as food but most of it not.  I doubt whether any of us will complain when water once again flows from Conesus Lake, down Reservoir Road and 20A, and into the Arboretum lines to irrigate our vegetables. 

Currently it's hard to envision many of us fully embracing the daily manual labor of farm work, and this brings me to the illustration above.  It's an advertising card from a manufacturer in Kalamazoo, Michigan named B.S. Williams Co., and dates to the 1880s; the company was well known for its forward-looking design of using steel rather than wood for windmills.  We're all familiar with the advertisement's primal before-and-after logic: before, drawing up well water by hand leaves the plows inactive, forces mom into manual farm work, and creates a vicious kickback that will cripple your child; after, with the wind doing your work, there's time for productive plowing, mom lovingly will darn your socks, and junior can teach Sparky to sit up.  "Did you ever think," the advertisement asks, "that the wind can be your servant, working night and day without fuel, food, wages, or instructions, never striking or getting tired?"  Somewhere between this fantasy of mastering nature to labor on our behalf and the affliction of grinding manual labor lies the terrain of appropriate technology....

Harvested: lettuce, kale, cilantro (all overwintering from last year)

Planted: chard, radishes, spinach, lettuce, potatoes, onions, carrots, mustard greens, beets, haricorts verts, pole beans, sugar snap peas, soybeans, tomatoes, peppers, collards, edible flowers.

Notes: Plant winter squash soon!  Find resources (financial and construction) to rebuild fence this fall.  Back to needing compost again--what about exploring vermiculture?  is that a viable option at our location?

March 6, 2011     The green matrix

 Garden Grid   Minesweeper 2   Minesweeper 1


I was tweaking our garden diagram to accomodate Arielle's new squash beds and, when switching over to the "grid view" to drop in the new space, found myself pondering its visual resemblance to the brain-rotting game Minesweeper -- or really, a hilarious theatrical trailer parody I had seen about video games that are adapted into movies.  There seemed to be some deeper message amidst the absurdity of real-life actors in black special ops coveralls walking around with shovels upon an outdoor grid to stake out markers, perhaps nothing more than the incommensurability of gamespace and gardenspace, but then again doesn't that dichotomy oversimplify the issue?  After all, even as I write there are tens of millions visiting their Facebook pages to play games like Farmville, Farm Town, and Farmerama.  Waaay back in 1993 Maxis put out a game called Sim Farm, and a more recent incarnation of The Sims allows players to design their own farms.  It's the same thing on Second Life: for a few lindens more you can buy a Rustic Vegetable Garden "with animations."  However dirty our hands, in other words, whatever the profundity of our connection to nature as we garden, there seems to be some level at which we experience gardening as a sort of game -- a green matrix.  Let's ponder this for a couple of minutes....

1. Virtual gardens precede, by centuries, their electronic descendents. Ancient gardeners designed and then laid out labyrinths, turf mazes, or hedge mazes -- presumably followed by the satisfactions of watching players lost amidst the forking paths.  Theseus vs. the minotaur in history's original first-person shooter, copyright Daedalus Productions... Highly idealized designs for monastic gardens in all their platonic perfection... And really, the way any sort of landscape design can be said to exist as distinct in its overhead circuitry from the material garden it proposes to grow-- from Persian carpets to schematic renderings to the sim-inflected logic of Plangarden.  All of this (and more) leads me to conclude that there's some deeper genealogy encompassing the artificial spaces of gardens and the equally immersive, "interactive" layouts of new media objects.

2. And this doesn't even include the whole question of how the cartesian grid of seed racks might be seen as virtual garden plots...

3. ...nor the speculation that a millenia-long culture of farming cannot simply have disappeared over a few decades, so that assiduously tended Facebook pages and other online parcels can be said to enact the logic (and pleasures) of virtual gardening.

4. If Farmville seems too cheesy, you can make an online visit to the United States Botanic Garden, rendered in 360-degree navigability, one of many virutal garden tours that have become a cultural form in their own right.

5. Closer to the horticultural realm, there are some amazingly complex & intricate schemas -- programs, really -- for maximizing vegetable production in a given space, over a season.  They're termed French intensive gardens, square foot gardens, biodynamic gardens, and biointensive gardens; the vegetable beds are raised, gridded, interplanted, succession-planted, and companion-planted.  Dickson Despommier's Vertical Farm carries the logic of modular sims-style construction into the third dimension.

6. In William Gibson's Neuromancer, electronic waste "cooking itself down under the pressure of time, silent invisible flakes settling to form a mulch, a crystalline essence of discarded technology, flowering secretly in the Sprawl's wastes."

7. The cybernetic Wall-E as a garden bot, who not coincidentally references the droids in Silent Running and also was featured as the protagoinist of  an ill-advised video game, the "harvest" of which was clips from the as-then unreleased DVD