Planting Seeds: Start Where You Are

“Where do I start?” This question was asked of myself and 3 other panelists after a showing of the film “Seed: The Untold Story.”

Christmas Lima Bean

Christmas Lima Bean

The Music Hall in Portsmouth NH screened this new documentary earlier in November and I was privileged to be on a panel for discussion following it with Andrea Cadwell, founder of Seeds of Community, Evan Mallett, Black Trumpet Bistro Chef/Owner and Heirloom Harvest Project Co-founder, and Erik Wochholz, Horticulturist and Curator of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke Museum.

My quick summary of the film is that there has been a tremendous loss of diversity in our food supply, and a loss of control over seeds by those who actually grow food, brought on by the transition of seed out of the commons and into the realm of corporations. It also showed some of the dangers of conventional agricultural practices of pesticide and herbicide use, and geneticially modified food. The information in the film was disturbing, but the accounts of communities who are reclaiming their seeds and protesting the abuses of corporations was inspiring. And the photography was beautiful.

Back to our question – Where do I start?

Tiger Eye Bean

Tiger Eye Bean

This is an especially great question to contemplate when the topic is seed, because a seed is a start in itself. In every seed there is the possibility to begin life again for the plant that created it. If it gets what it needs to kick off and support the process (cold, fire, or simply soil and water, for instance), it will grow. All the directions it needs to become just what it’s meant to be are there. I have been farming or gardening for 20 years now, and I never fail to feel awe, gratitude and joy when a seed I planted sends up a shoot and down a root. Every time feels like a miracle, like magic.

For us humans, we struggle more with figuring out just what we’re meant to be and do. I can’t know what your answer is, of course, but here are my thoughts in response to being asked the question after the film last week.

First of all – it doesn’t really matter where you start! Even when you think of a seed, you can ask was the seed the beginning or was the plant that made the seed there first? It’s a circle, like so much in nature, and just stepping into the flow of it is what’s important. Which brings me to a question for you: what appeals to you, what do you feel called to or inspired to do on this subject? That’s a great place to focus.

True Red Cranberry Pole Bean

True Red Cranberry Pole Bean

There are so many ways to be a part of this movement to take back our power. There has been a tendency in our society these last 100 years or so to decide that if something takes a lot of work, we’d be better off to have someone else do it for us and call that freedom. In some cases it just means we have to do other work in order to pay someone to do the original task for us, often with lower standards and less care. Other things have become so cheap that I guess we do get extra free time – which a lot of people spend watching TV or on Facebook (I don’t mean to judge – my life has some TV & Facebook as well!). I believe this amounts to trading away our real sovereignty and control over our lives.

So, on that personal level, do grow a garden, keep small

My Garden Soil

My Garden Soil

livestock, or go beyond that and become a farmer! We need more small-scale, deeply sustainable food growers. Use your yard, a community garden, or look for larger areas of land. Any food you grow will be fresher than almost anything you can buy, and won’t have the transportation footprint of supermarket options. What you don’t grow, look for locally at farmer’s markets, farm stands, CSAs, and sometimes healthfood stores. Learn to build your own soil – a dwindling resource that we are totally dependent on. I teach permacultural soil building techniques through Seacoast Permaculture if you are local. And, yes, save your seeds! For what you haven’t saved, turn to ethical seed sellers to buy from such as Fedco, High Mowing. and Seed Savers Exchange.

However, the problems we face are beyond one person’s ability to change. Join with others and make change on larger levels.

You can join groups working to educate about these issues and bring back these skills such as Seacoast Permaculture, Slow Food Seacoast, Seacoast Eat Local and NOFA.

Christmas Lima Beans

Christmas Lima Beans

You can get involved in efforts to change legislation like GMO food labeling, pesticide use, and supporting small farmers. A few options are NOFA-NH, Just Label It, The Pesticide Action Network, and March Against Monsanto.

There are also groups who are challenging the rights of corporations to patent life, and to have so much political clout. Seeds and food are not the only issues in which huge entities organized solely to make profit are deciding our future. NH has a history of challenging this problem, led by our own Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who walked over 3,200 miles across the United States to advocate for campaign finance reform at the age of 88 years old. Her work is carried on now by The NH Rebellion.

I should say that all of these groups are non-partisan. Regardless of how you feel about the recent election you are welcome in them!

Maine Yellow Eye Beans

Maine Yellow Eye Beans

I hope this gives you ideas on where you might be able to step in and make a difference on sustainable food and diversity. The great news is that any of these steps are fun, and fulfilling. They’ll improve your health and life. Sure, it takes some work – but don’t most things worth having?

It’s worth noting that this film looked at food plant diversity, but the same situation is faced for livestock breeds. I encourage you to research that, and maybe that will be their next documentary!

ADDENDUM: I didn’t feel like the film did a great job of precisely explaining some of the terms used in reference to seeds. I thought I’d give you a few definitions, especially if seed saving is something that you now want to try your hand at after seeing this beautiful film:

Heirloom: a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Open pollinated: seeds that will “breed true.” When the plants of an open-pollinated variety self-pollinate, or are pollinated by another of the same variety, their seeds will produce plants generally identical to their parents. Saving seed from these plants is accessible to all farmers and gardeners.

Hybrid seed: seed produced by cross-pollinated plants. This can occur naturally, but in our commercial seed stock, hybrids are created by human intervention. The positive side of this is the phenomon of hybrid vigor which makes these crosses vigorous and high yielding. However, the seed produced is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years, which leads to a dependency on seed companies. Hybrid seeds can be stabilized, however, becoming open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many years. Hybrid is NOT the same as Genetically Modified, which bypasses nature’s species boundaries through laboratory means to create plants which would never occur naturally.

You can learn more about seed types here.

Hop McConnell Speckled Corn Harvested

Hop McConnell Speckled Corn Harvested, 2016

Hop McConnell Speckled Corn Growing, 2016

Hop McConnell Speckled Corn Growing, 2016


2 Comments

Filed under Gardens, Uncategorized

My Honey Bees, Healthy but Hungry in 2016

I did not have a great beekeeping season here in NH, but not for the reasons you might have heard about, like colony collapse disorder, pesticide kills, or varroa mites.

bees-pollen in comb

Orange & Yellow Pollen in the Comb

My hives came through last winter well, four full hives and one smaller nucleus hive.  The spring was slow to really get going, but they hung in there and started building up their work forces well, bringing in dandelion nectar and so much beautiful pollen (you can see them packing it away in the photo here).  I implemented my non-chemical mite control strategies at the correct times and my bees looked and acted healthy.  I hoped for a great honey harvest, and in the meantime started making splits to start new colonies to expand my apiary.  I planned to go into this winter with at least five nucleus colonies that could be my new hives for 2017 rather than buying any Southern bee packages.

And then… the drought hit us.

At the beginning of May we in the Seacoast of NH were classified as “abnormally dry” and by now we are at the “extreme drought” level.  All over New England, in a strange, spotty pattern, the drought is hitting farms, wildlife, and wells.  Hay was hard to come by (we had to order it from Vermont), our garden and orchard suffered… and the bees.

Nectar in Comb

Turning Nectar into Honey

The nectar that honey bees bring to their hives to turn into honey starts off with about 80% water content.  So, if a plant is dehydrated it can’t make much nectar.  The bees go out to forage, but just don’t find much to collect to make honey out of.

My overwintered hives only made a small amount of extra honey – they need the first 75# for themselves, and there wasn’t much more than that.  What excess I did pull out, I gave to my new little nucleus hives who barely made any with their small number of foragers.  I have had to step in and feed them sugar water – which is just not as nutritious or healthy for them.  But bad food is better than starvation, and the weather is not their fault.

Workers Emerging

Workers Emerging

All my hives are strong and show no signs of illness at this point.  I kept up my mite control all summer – drone comb removal, doing some splitting to create broodless periods, and dusted them with powdered sugar at specific broodless times.  Most importantly, I got all my new queens from Northern beekeepers: Troy Hall in NH and Bob Brachmann in upstate NY.  The research I’ve seen and my experience

Queen Bees from Troy Hall

Queen Bees from Troy Hall

point to the tremendous importance of genetics and of bee stock that is adapted to our colder climate.  Counting on genetics, breeding and evolution to help us save our bees is certainly not a quick fix – but, as Permaculture Principle #9 tells us: Slow and Steady Wins the Race.

Two of my hives also made their own queens, which I will be watching

Cold Country Queen Bee on comb

Queen Bee on comb

closely to evaluate.  They were hives with fabulous Russian Queens from Bob Brachmann.  They came through two winters beautifully, have been gentle and productive.  But I had no say in the drones their daughter queens mated with and don’t really trust that all my fellow local beekeepers aren’t using a lot of Southern bee stock.  There’s actually not enough Northern stock to supply us all at this point.  So, I fear that I will have trouble doing good queen breeding here – but it never hurts to try, especially when the bees did most of the work of it!

I am feeding and prepping my hives for a winter that’s predicted to be a long, snowy one.  We’ll all try to get through that and hope for a better season next year.

Beyond hoping, I am also reminded that the personal is political and it’s important to keep agitating for good environmental and energy policy. I have plans to get more involved with some of 350 New Hampshire‘s campaigns over the winter, while the bees and gardens sleep!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Honey Bees

Grateful for the Garden, Despite A Challenging Season

Produce is coming in well now, with picking, cooking and DSCN6930preserving a big part of my days and nights. I’m grateful for the resiliency of nature and the good soil I’ve been building that brings me any bounty at all in such a tough year. 

Garlic

Pulling Garlic

Mostly, our annual garden has suffered, which is where we get most of our veggies. We are working on more perennial veggies, and fruit and nut bushes and trees, but those take years to establish. So, meanwhile, we have the annuals.

The first big challenge was critters of the herbivorous rodent types. Chipmunks, and, yes, at least one groundhog.

In our area, this season has been teeming with animal garden disruptors. I have talked to a number of people having extra trouble this year with squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, raccoons,… I think it’s related to the mild winter we just had allowing an unusually large number of them to survive, leading to lots of competition for food, between themselves and with humans.

Potatoes

Potatoes

In any case, even one groundhog can be the end of it for a garden. We have good fencing, but it’s a few years old, and our GH was finding every weak spot that had developed. She got in at least 10 times, eating her way around. Favorites were peas, lettuce, all of my brassicas (kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), bean plants, and sunflowers. What I noticed she did not touch were garlic, onions, squash, eggplant, potato and tomato plants. When I write that out I do see that she was leaving us something, but we eat lots of brassicas and beans, so found it really painful to have them wiped out – more than once. They would disappear, then Steve would work on fencing, and I’d replant… and they would disappear again.

It was really frustrating and I admit to shedding some tears in the garden a couple of times. I considered planting a ring of stinging nettle along the whole border of the garden, but when I looked online to find out if this worked I only found a video someone took of a groundhog happily munching away on them! Wow, they’re tough little beasts – and smart to eat such nutritious food!

We had a Have-A-Heart trap set up, but no luck. We did catch the baby goats a few times! At some point in about mid-June, Steve did make the garden tight enough – including a new gate that is almost human-proof it’s so well-built!

Squash Vines in the New Orchard

At that point the GH moved higher up on our property and started in on my perennial gardens. This is much closer to the house, so we started to see her a lot. This led to the opportunity for us to bring a quick end to this chapter, I will say euphemistically.

DSCN6617

Our Dominique Rooster Making Himself Heard

[A further word about my feelings/philosophy on this Ground Hog… I was frustrated and angry, but I tried to keep enough perspective to never hate her – she was doing just what she was supposed to do in the landscape! We were in competition, and I wanted to win, but had respect for her as a smart, tenacious being. I’m glad that there was a quick end to it. I’m not a big fan of relocating animals like this, who will likely either become a problem for someone else, or be so traumatized by the move that they die anyway after suffering. This felt like the right way to address it responsibly to me. And, yes, we did cook this GH, fattened up on organic produce! However, the taste wasn’t great, so we let our chickens eat her, giving them a blissful, oh, three minutes or so! These are the moments I remember that chickens are direct descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Little dinosaurs in our yard…!]

DSCN6557

Costata Romanesco Zucchini

After that was dealt with, I have still been losing some produce to the chipmunks, but a manageable amount compared to the GH loss. 

By this time, though, we were being hit with drought. Here in Seacoast NH we have been classified as experiencing a “severe drought” for about a month now. I heavily mulch our gardens for the health of the soil and for water conservation, and we have swale/berm systems set up. We will also water our garden, DSCN6810but it is possible to pump our well dry, and our rain barrels and ponds are only enough for a few deep waterings. This year none of that has been enough to keep up with what the garden needs for best yields in a year with months of drought.

While the competing critters are frustrating, the drought is depressing and frightening. It’s so far out of my personal control, and it’s so tough on the land. I think about other places dealing with worse drought. California shows up on the US drought map I check, with it’s off-the-charts lack of rainfall, but the global drought situation is truly scary. The connections between lack of water and violence and war are getting clearer and well-documented. This is why climate disruption is so clearly important to movements for peace.

DSCN6837

Red Kuri Winter Squash

I have reflected a lot on how much more stressful this would be if we were truly and totally depending on this garden for our food, without back-up plans of buying from farmer’s markets and grocery stores. That’s how it used to be and still is for a lot of people: grow food, or be hungry. We are in a strange moment in time here when most (not all, I know) Americans have enough to eat without even having to think about food production. I completely support keeping everyone fed, whatever their economic circumstances. But I also think we’d be more resilient, smarter about what’s really important and happier if we all had a hand in the important work of feeding ourselves and our communities.  Meanwhile, I give thanks for my beautiful havests!

DSCN6877

Black Beauty Eggplant

DSCN6875

Winterbor Kale

3 Comments

Filed under Gardens, Soil, Weather