Biodiversity, Flowers and Vegetable Gardens

July 5, 2012 · Filed Under Featured Plant, Garden · 6 Comments 

I’ve been interested for a while in finding ways to make use of flowers to increase the biodiversity in my vegetable garden.  To be honest, I’m a complete novice when it comes to flowers, and I don’t really have an interest in them unless they serve some clear purpose.

Some years ago, when the Seed Ambassadors visited Europe, I got some of Alan Kapuler’s tagetes seeds from them.  As I recall, there weren’t many seeds left by the time it was my turn to take some, and of the few seeds I got only one or two germinated.  I don’t remember what happened to those…

Alan Kapuler is known for tagetes.  When placing an order with him a few years ago for some other things, I also ordered some more of these too.  They’ve been sitting around, and now this year I had a couple of goals to accomplish.

  • The first was to provide some flowers suitable for bees and other pollinators to collect pollen, and for this I chose borage.
  • I also have some perennial weed issues in my garden, and I was hoping to address this by somehow solving underlying problems, or with companion planting or biodiversity.

Last year I had some bindweed in my garden, slowly encroaching on a neighbor’s garden.  With some apologies, I explained the situation to her and said I would do what I could, but expected some of it would come into her garden anyway.  Without saying a word to me, she planted some Tagetes minuta, a wild plant in our area, along our fence.  The result was quite impressive.  All the bindweed within about a meter of the fence died.

I’ve since read some things about using tagetes to kill bindweed, but to be honest the information available is a little conflicting and vague.  Some sources say particular species of tagetes are more effective than others.  Almost all sources mention that no benefit is achieved until the plant has been growing in the same place for at least 3 months.  Anyway, it seemed a good year to grow some of Alan Kapuler’s varieties and put them to the test.  He offers T. patula and T. erecta.  Several of them were planted in places very infested with bindweed.

T. patula

T. erecta

Borage

The tagetes haven’t been in place for a full 3 months yet, so it’s probably a little early for conclusions, but not much seems to be happening yet.  I did notice none of the tagetes are becoming engulfed in the bindweed, as if the bindweed instinctively knows not to grow near them.

Does anyone have any experience with tagetes and bindweed or tagetes and anything else?

Does anyone have other suggestions or ideas for combining flowers and vegetable gardens, for purposes of making use of biodiversity?

Asparagus Seedlings

July 4, 2012 · Filed Under Featured Plant, Garden, Seeds · 2 Comments 

They weren’t being very photogenic, small green things on a grey background, but most of the asparagus I posted about a few days ago are in the garden.  Wow, 30 varieties!

The germination rate of the seeds was phenomenal!   Nearly 100% for most accessions.  I wonder if the folks at GRIN use magic pixy dust or something.  I’ve never had that good a rate of germination from asparagus before.  It’s not unusual to get a rate of 0%, maybe more often I spend a lot of money for a package of 10 seeds, and 2 germinate.  These packages were labelled 50 seeds, and the very worst yielded 8 plants in the end, which is enough.

One company I bought asparagus seeds from this year had 10 seeds per packet.  I figured I would order 3 packets for about 3 euros a package, just in case of low germination, and none of them germinated.  I was very annoyed.

Well you can do the math — 30 packages of 50 seeds, with a say 90% germination rate gives 1350 asparagus seedlings.  Needless to say I didn’t have space for them all.  It was more than I expected, and had to change gardening plans a bit to find space for about half of them.  It’s a problem of luxury we gardeners have sometimes.  After the first year I should have crowns to transplant, and I’ll probably be able to do some initial selections then.  I probably don’t have enough space for 30 different varieties…

Europe to Subsidize GMOs via Plastic Bag Tax

June 17, 2012 · Filed Under Environment, Featured Plant, Political, Science · 1 Comment 

In most of Europe we have to bag our own groceries in supermarkets.  If we don’t provide our own bags, we need to buy them.

It’s been a battle for some years now.  Supermarkets always want to offer free bags as a convenience.  They don’t usually like it when customers bring their own backpacks and the like, for fear of shoplifting.

In recent years a number of EU countries have started to impose bag or packaging taxes, presumably in order to further reduce the use of plastics in supermarkets.  Now suddenly GMO plastics have started to replace petroleum based plastics, and national governments are beginning to exempt GMO plastics from these taxes, in effect subsidizing their use.

The Netherlands has a tax scheme that strongly favors GMO plastics, taxing them at a lower rate.  Germany has exempted GMO plastics from their bag tax completely.  In other countries like Ireland, governments are being lobbied to scrap their taxes on GMO plastics.

Here’s a bag I bought from a local supermarket a few days ago:

Notice the logo in the upper corner:

It says ‘This bag is made from corn and fully compostable’.  I bought another bag from a natural foods store a few days ago, and it had this on it:

On the bottom is says ‘This bag is biodegradable’.  The clerk who sold me the bag said it was made from potatoes.

Is it a coincidence that the only two GM crops approved for planting in Europe are a ‘high starch’ potato and a corn variety?  I don’t think so.  We’ve been told for years now these two varieties are not destined for human consumption.

For the record I want to say to both Marqt and Ekoplaza that I’m very disappointed they would sell GMOs to their customers in this way, especially as they are not even clearly labelled for what they are.  This is a very misleading and dishonest thing to do.

Greenwashing

The argument goes that plastics are a huge environmental problem — so far I guess we all agree.  Therefore compostable or biodegradable GMO plastics are better — I guess this is where the agreement ends.

The argument is not unlike how expensive mercury filled bulbs imported from China are supposed to be better for us than cheaper locally made standard light bulbs.  The argument is not complete and not accurate.

Netherlands

Here in the Netherlands the argument goes that we are a coastal area, with canals that carry water out to sea.  A percentage of litter falls into these canals, and ultimately contributes to the ‘big plastic soup’ in the oceans.  What’s missing of course in this argument are actual statistics or studies that show how much this is as a proportion of the plastics in the sea, if there aren’t better ways of managing the problem for example filtering the water as it leaves land, and any sort of proof or explanation as to why GMO plastics are in any way better for the environment.

Certainly, if you as a consumer properly dispose of your waste and don’t throw it in the ocean, the entire argument of GMO plastics being better vanishes.

Compostable or Biodegradable

Biodegradable is a legally defined term, that indicates something will break down into naturally occurring components.  Compostable is a looser term, that simply means it will break down into something supposedly harmless, but not necessarily naturally occurring.

In either case, these plastics do not break down at all, except in industrial processes.  You can’t compost these plastics at home in your own garden, and there is no guarantee they will breakdown in the environment in any sort of reasonable time frame.  Once they do break down, all we have is the word of the manufactures that they will break down into something harmless.  In particular, it seems unlikely they would breakdown quickly in the cold dark oceans.

If they are disposed of properly, they are certainly of no added environmental benefit.  In a landfill they would still take up the same space as normal plastic, and if incinerated they would also break down in a similar way as ordinary plastic.  There are unlikely to be more or better recycling possibilities when compared to ordinary plastic.  In fact the presence of even a very small amount of GMO plastic can contaminate a batch of traditional PET or other plastics and undermine recycling efforts.

Agriculture is the Single Most Important Contributor to Climate Change

It’s highly unlikely GMO plastic can be produced with less impact to the environment as ordinary plastic.  This is the tiresome argument of biofuels, which take more energy to produce than is in the resulting product.

GMO crops still need chemicals and fertilizers, which are based on fossil fuels and impact the environment.

Labelling

In Europe there are labelling laws requiring the labelling of most GMO foods.  Packaging and plastics should not be exempt!  Consumers should have the right to choose alternatives.

Sun Scald and Blue Tomatoes

May 23, 2012 · Filed Under Environment, Featured Plant · 6 Comments 

Like on the leaves above, from time to time I have problems with sun scald on tomato plants, both on the leaves and fruits.  This is especially true the last few years as the ozone layer has been thinning over Europe.

One of the things Tom Wagner mentioned when I visited him, was with the new blue tomatoes, the blue pigment reacts to sunlight not only to intensify the blue color, but also to protect the plant against sun scald!

The tomato here was close to the one above, but you can see instead of getting scalded, it’s acquiring blue pigment in the leaves.  This is one of Tom’s Helsing Junction Blues tomatoes.  The seeds he gave me were F2 or F3, so still very variable.  If you’re growing the same tomato, it might look different.  Also, I have a few others of the same variety, and they are also different.

To be honest, I hardly bother to grow tomatoes anymore.  There are just too many instantly fatal things that can happen with them, the most serious being the blight we get every year.  I was interested in trying a blue variety, and I’m also growing one of Tom’s blight resistant Skykomish tomatoes next to it, so the blue variety is sort of acting as a control plant.

Asparagus Trials

May 23, 2012 · Filed Under Featured Plant, Garden · 3 Comments 

I’ve been growing asparagus for a few years now, and we are finally getting a reasonably good harvest each year.

Anyway, I decided this year to do a big asparagus expansion, and trial a number of different kinds.  I purchased some seeds and crowns for different wild and purple asparaguses, and I also ordered 30 genebank accessions.  The later of which came the other day, just in time for planting.  I’ve tried to get ‘at least one of everything’.

A big thank you goes out to the people at GRIN-ARS at Cornell, who made it possible to get these seeds!  They’re really providing an important service.  On the customs declaration they modestly declared the combined value of the seeds as US$1, and indicated if the package was undeliverable it should be considered abandoned.  In a commercial sense it’s true, but they’re worth a lot more than that to me.

Now I have 30 last minute trays of numbered asparagus seeds waiting to germinate:

It’ll take a few years of course before they are mature enough to eat, but I think it’ll be interesting to explore the differences, and perhaps try to create my own variety out of the best of the varieties I’ve received.

One of the varieties I’ve purchased is a very modern one from a local commercial asparagus breeding company.  It’ll be interesting to see what they think are good traits.

Anyone else have experience asparagus breeding or collecting, maybe with varieties or experiences to trade?  I’m not in contact with anyone who has specific asparagus breeding experience.

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