Growing pains

Abandoned toy


UPDATE: This site can now be viewed directly at

Sometime in about a week, I will be switching web hosts.  This will enable me to let my blog better reflect the business behind it, which would otherwise be against policy.

All of the content (save this post) has been exported to the new (but offline) site already, including your comments.  There will be no more ads.  There will also be no more “likes”.  But the blog will look much the same, with all the parts in the same place it has been, and you’ll have more options for sharing posts that you like.

Important highlights for regular readers:

  • The web site address will still be, but at the switch or shortly thereafter, the site will direct to a static home page and there will be a menu option for the blog.  Those of you with bookmarks will probably want to edit your bookmarks to go direct to the blog.
  • Those of you who keep up with the latest posts by following on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ will still get updates that way.
  • Those of you who keep up with the latest posts on RSS:  It might work, or you might need to reset your feed.  I am about 80% sure you will need to change nothing.
  • Email subscribers: Your subscriptions will be moved for you to the new site.
  • subscribers: Your subscriptions will be moved for you to the new site, but you will no longer get email notifications from  If you want email notifications, once the site is moved you will have the option to subscribe there.
  • readers who aren’t subscribed but see us in Reader: The site will no longer appear in Reader unless you manually add it or follow us using one of the methods above.

I am very excited about the move, as it opens up a lot of options for me.  When the site is officially moved, I’ll post a quick note on both the new and the WordPress link  If you don’t see that within 10 days, please check in manually.

I hope you will join me at the new site, and bring your friends and questions!

Hybrid vigor in pepper seedlings

Early Scarlet, radish, sprout

Hybrid vigor, or heterosis, is a poorly understood process from a genetic standpoint, but it’s one that plant breeders exploit quite successfully.  Simply put, they cross two varieties of a plant, then grow out the children called the F1 generation.  If the cross is successful, it produces a hybrid plant which has superior characteristics to both of its parents, and often has stronger vigor — growing larger and faster than either parent.  If you’ve ever had a mystery squash take over your compost pile and look like Audrey II, that was hybridization at work.

Hybrids are developed to have better yield, flavor, resistance to a particular pest or disease, and/or better performance in a certain climate.  In many ways, this is similar to the reasons heirloom varieties are developed.  Grandma’s special zucchini from years of saving seeds is a variety which performs uniquely well in her garden, but may do poorly in yours 100 miles away.  (Or not.)  Regional favorites, like banana peppers here in the South, do so well throughout the region that they become hugely popular and are often sold as commercial transplants.  Most people don’t think of these as heirlooms, but they still are.  And all heirlooms or newer open pollinated varieties start out as a hybrid cross.

Hybrids or “F1” cultivars are common in catalogs.  These are not “genetically modified” any more than a mixed breed dog is, they are just crosses that are commercially produced in order to sell the children for seed.  While you can’t save the next F2 generation for seed and expect them to reproduce true, sometimes hybrids are just the ticket for a vegetable that doesn’t want to do well for you.

I grow sweet peppers, bell or lamuyo, from hybrid.  The open pollinated varieties simply don’t do well for me.  However, hot peppers do.  This year my pepper crop includes the African-American heirloom Fish Pepper with it’s lovely foliage and mildly hot taste, and experimenting with the new Islander F1 bell which is purple in it’s “green” stage.

Here’s the comparison of seedlings at the same age of development and grown under the same conditions:

Fish Pepper seedling

Fish Pepper seedling

Islander F1 seedling

Islander F1 seedling

The Fish Pepper will grow up just fine, but the hybrid is nearly ready for planting. Unfortunately, the weather is not, so the hybrids will just have to wait a bit longer.

Assessing Winter Damage

tree frog

After a colder than normal winter, it’s time to assess winter damage in trees and shrubs.  For plants which normally would not have budded or leafed out by now, I suggest a wait and see approach.  For those that are evergreen, or should be showing signs of life, you can test it’s survival fairly easily.

The first category of plants are evergreens like rosemary and wormwood and camellia.  Although the leaves may have all died, the plant may still be alive.  Gently scrape off a bit of the outer bark and look for the green cambium layer.  The cambium layer is a thin layer of tissue under the bark that transports nutrients up the plant and provides cells for further growth.  If you see green (and it may be pale green), that stem is alive.

living cambian layer

Living cambian layer

If there is no green, give the twig a gentle bend and look for a place where the plant bends instead of being hard and brittle.  Go back to that point and check again.  The inner portions of the plant may be alive while the exterior portions, more exposed to the elements, are dead.  If so, prune back to the living tissue.  It may be that there is no sign of green.  In this case, the plant’s roots may be alive and it may grow back from the ground.  Give the plant a hard rejuvenation pruning all they way back to a stub, and wait.

dead cambium layer

It’s dead, Jim.

The second category of plants are deciduous shrubs which normally regrow on old wood.  These plants may have a very subtle cambium layer, one which is barely visible if at all.  Leave them be.  If you see the plant regrowing only from the roots, like this hydrangea, give it some time.  Go ahead and prune away the dead, brittle twigs once it’s clear it is not going to regrow from the existing wood.

hydrangea regrowth from roots

Top part is dead, but it’s coming back from the roots.

So it Begins

asparagus, sprout

Always, it seems, with peas, then radishes and just when you think something must be wrong, the asparagus pops up and you find yourself eating the tender, juicy spears while standing in the garden.  Fat ones like this at the store, you have to peel off the tough outside.  Not so when fresh.

Amish Snap, pea, sprout

Just about the time you have to give you asparagus a rest, the peas and radishes will be coming in — and transplants will be going out. The very transplants that I painfully forced myself to cull yesterday. I want them all to live. But good gardeners are sometimes ruthless gardeners, and that means the strongest, toughest seedlings will be the last ones standing.

Even when it does mean pinching off your little photosynthetic children at the soil line.

Spring Fever(s)

cedar, flower, pollen, yellow

I have been saying for a while now that spring is here.  The plants and the sun don’t lie, even if the temperature does.  Over the past few days, the temperature has caught up, and like a starting gun has gone off, the woods and pastures and roadsides are exploding.

Unfortunately, last week found me with a cold and fever, then allergies kicked in, and so about the time I got myself back on track, I was running behind.  Trying to ramp up two sideline income streams to full fledged small businesses is, frankly, much harder work than working for someone else, and my time allocation right now is hampered by random appointment times, out of town trips and government forms.  I’m not complaining: this is a lot more fun than programming software all day.   But it has reduced the time I’ve been able to spend on the blog lately.

Today, though, I finally got back outside for some work in the garden in what has been a glorious spring day.  (Due apologies to readers farther north still struggling with snow.)  The peas are looking lovely, the radishes are coming up and the transplants got a taste of the outdoors today.  I cut back the shrubs that did not survive the winter to see if any come back from the roots, weeded the garden and finally marked all my bulbs — 4 years late — so I can dig and separate them later this year.

Tomorrow is almost promising to be hot, but no free time in the garden for me: it’s back to work.  But I hope everyone is in your garden (or at least outdoors) at some point taking advantage of the the mild temperatures that much of the country is enjoying.

Great Recession shows families with improved diets

This month’s edition of the USDA Amber Waves reports that:

The fact that a decline in FAFH [Food Away From Home] consumption was only observed among working-age adults, and not among older adults, suggests that the recession was a large factor influencing where working-age adults obtained their food. However, the fact that accounting for household income did not affect the estimated change in FAFH consumption over the period suggests that the recession effect was not mainly through income, but through other channels such as increased time available for shopping and preparing food at home.

Researchers also found that most of the improvements in diet quality were not a result of the decline in FAFH consumption. The quality of at-home and away-from-home foods improved, perhaps from consumers focusing more on nutrition when selecting foods. Whether or not these changes are a result of the recession or are due to other factors cannot be determined with the data. However, the fact that improved diet quality was observed among older adults and that they also reported greater attention to nutrition information suggests that this nutrition focus is not simply the result of higher unemployment. Food manufacturers may also be responding in part to consumer demand for nutrition by improving the nutritional content of foods that they produce.

Cutting back and eating more food at home correlates with improved nutrition and family time.  That’s good — but not surprising — news.  Although there is no direct link between the two, priorities have shifted.  Read the full article here.

That’s not all.  The United States added 5 million home food gardeners from 2008 to 2009, an increase of 14%.  41 million people who garden for food at home might be impacting those improved nutrition numbers a bit.

Unfortunately, the need for gardening for food for economic reasons is likely here to stay.  The Congressional Budget Office report “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024” forecasts a solid pace in economic growth through 2017, although they don’t expect unemployment to drop below 6% until 2016 and then not by much.  But after 2017:

Beyond 2017, CBO expects that economic growth will diminish to a pace that is well below the average seen over the past several decades. That projected slowdown mainly reflects long-term trends—particularly, slower growth in the labor force because of the aging of the population. Inflation, as measured by the change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE), will remain at or below 2.0 percent throughout the next decade, CBO anticipates… In CBO’s projections, the growth of potential GDP over the next 10 years is much slower than the average since 1950.

That’s a projection, not something written in stone.  As baby boomers continue to retire it will cause a demographic, cultural and economic shift in the United States, the likes of which haven’t been seen since they were born.  Many will be healthy, active and likely to spend decades in retirement.  It’s hard for anyone to say exactly what the full ramifications of that demographic transition will be, and any projections must be viewed as a possibility, not a probability.

If you are involved in home food production, you have a lot of company right now.

Urban Chickens Update (Huntsville, AL)

The Huntsville Hen Alliance is still working toward legalizing chickens in the city limits of Huntsville, AL.  Although there have been major setbacks, the issue is not yet officially dead since it was not voted upon.

If this is an issue near and dear to your heart, please consider attending an organizing meeting March 22, 2014.

We have meeting rooms A & B reserved at the Library’s Main Branch for Saturday 3/22, from 3pm to 5pm. This meeting is all about strategy and how to best educate the public on urban chickens.

For those of you who want to stay involved, this is a great chance to meet like-minded people and bring your best ideas to the table. Where we go from here is up to all of us!

We’ll have a few announcements to make concerning our next best shot at influencing an actual change in policy. I know many of you are in this for the long haul.

Hope to see you there,
Sam Caraway

The woodlands bloom in spring, too.



There are many spring “weeds” that thrive in the first rays of the returning sun, but in the woods plants are blooming as well.  Many are tiny, delicate and short-lived flowers (like wood anemones) that are often overlooked.  Others have been hybridized and cultivated from their wild cousins to join the garden (like lenten rose), and still others are invasives that have escaped from the garden trade to displace native life (like Oregon Grape).

The woods right now are more alive than you’d think, particularly in moist bottomlands.  If you have a chance, get out for a slow stroll or vigorous hike — whichever suits your style — and enjoy these treats while they last.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Hepatica sp.

Hepatica sp.

Bear's Foot (Helleborus foetidus) - non-native

Bear’s Foot (Helleborus foetidus) – non-native

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)

Oregon Grape (Mahonia sp.)

Oregon Grape (Mahonia sp.)

Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.)

Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.)


Spring weeds, and the homestretch to gardening season

yellow crocus

Yellow crocus

This is the reality of spring in Alabama: she’s a fickle tease or else just can’t make up her mind, and woe to the gardener that is lulled by the charms of a warm week into thinking winter is done.  It was sunny and in the 70’s a couple of days ago, but tonight it will probably snow.  Tomorrow night, the wind chill will drop near zero and actual temps will be in the teens.   But the march toward warm weather is relentless.  The sunlight falls differently and lasts noticeably longer each day, and the birds are singing their mating calls as loudly and often as they can.  The trees are tinged with pink and orange, their buds nearly ready to burst open.  Some of the precocious shrubs like forsythia and witchhazel are in full bloom.

Fields and lawns are filled with color as the early spring weeds begin their cycle of reproduction, giving bees a bit of early forage and us humans a bit of color among the dormant, brown summer grasses.  One person’s lovely bloom is a lawn aficionado’s enemy, but I like the shades of purple, blue, pink, white and yellow that my lawn runs through in spring.  Soon enough the bermuda and St. Augustine grass will take over, but right now belongs to the “weeds.”

Weeds like henbit, an edible member of the mint family.  Notwithstanding the timeless allure of blowing dandelion seed heads into the wind (to the silent dismay of my lawn-loving father), the fragile purple blossoms of henbit were my favorite, and I carefully gathered them into spring bouquets for my Mom.


Bittercress was harder to find, but I would pick that, too.  It’s a member of the mustard family and has a pleasant spicy bite to it, not too hot to eat by itself but gives a bit of a zing in salads.  It is not bitter at all, despite the name.



Speedwell, aka Veronica, is also blooming now.  Its tiny blue flowers are easily overlooked by themselves, but in mass they are a pleasing delicate blue.  Also edible and very nutritious, it tastes a bit like watercress although it can be quite bitter.  My local variety is probably Veronica persica, or Persian Speedwell.  It’s a European import that has spread throughout the United States, and historically was used as a tea to help reduce excess mucus from colds.  Scientific research on this plant is, unfortunately, very slim — but it’s still a cheerful blue.

speedwell, veronica

More lovely spring “weed” flowers are coming, from the cousin to henbit, Dead Nettle, to buttercup, dandelions and clover and the very useful chickweed.  Those are waiting for the soil to warm up just a little bit more, but I will be enjoying the terrible, pretty lawn weeds for their ephemeral spring lifespan.

Huntsville, AL Urban Agriculture amendment

For those in and near Huntsville, AL:

The Planning Commission of the City of Huntsville, Alabama will hold a public hearing on Zoning Ordinance Amendment:  Urban Agriculture.

Tuesday, February 25th, 5:00 pm, Council Chambers on the first floor of the Administration Building at 308 Fountain Circle SW in Huntsville.

You can read the text of the amendment here (PDF link).


UPDATE: The Farmer’s Market stakeholders are going to ask for a continuance to discuss some terminology issues that came up.  If accepted, the amendment won’t get discussed tonight.