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.

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.

Sustainable farming needs math as much as mulch, says one veteran

Mr. Willey’s thoughts about creating new, more just and sustainable food systems are discussion we all need to be having, and I particularly appreciate having him point out the reality that much of our “sustainable” growing today piggy backs on very unsustainable resource uses, like the widespread use of petrochemical fertilizers.

But as always, we can’t overlook the math and economics of producing food!


As I begin looking for concrete ways to advance local agriculture, I’m going to talk to some established players about what they see as the problems and potential for the immediate future.

I phoned up T & D Willey Farms because, in some sense, they’ve made it: Tom and Denesse Willey earn a comfortable income off 75 acres in the California’s San Joaquin Valley, near Madera. Most of their produce goes to organic specialty markets, and they deliver about 15 percent of what they grow through a community supported agriculture, or CSA, program.

“The CSA enjoys probably twice the profit margin of the farm wholesale business, but the hassle factor is also very high, in comparison,” Tom Willey told me, with a chuckle. I called because I had a very basic question: The Willeys have a proven model; why we don’t see a landslide of other farmers emulating them?


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Urban coyote

Coyote on the hunt

Coyote on the hunt

I have sympathy for those with lambs, chickens and outdoor cats, but coyotes are welcome at my house. They are excellent rodent predators, and I can use the help in and around my vegetable garden.

Yesterday I saw a coyote hunting in a field. Although he was quite aware I was watching him, I did not disturb his successful hunt. Then, last evening, I was treated to a rousing coyote song of yips and howls by a nearby pack. Although usually labeled as varmints and unsavory characters, I find much to admire in their incredible survival skills and grace.

Coyote prey is targeted

The prey is targeted

Coyote nabs his prey

He nabs his prey

Coyote lunch

Success: lunchtime

Coyote in field

Checking on his audience

What drought means for anyone who eats

NOAA Spring drought forecast

Spring drought forecast

Drought isn’t receiving much press outside of California, but it should.  The looming drought in the Central Valley — one which might be as bad or worse than 1977 — has the potential to drastically affect the production of food in the United States.  California produces an astonishing amount of food, but can only do so as long as the irrigation water is flowing.  Rivers are tapped that no longer flow to the sea, deltas are dried up and measuring the snow pack in the mountains is an annual ritual fraught with drama and anticipation for farmers.  Conservation measures by both homeowners and farmers and ecological restoration have modified the delicate balance of water usage, but tap water is sold at artificially low prices so for the homeowner there is little incentive to xeriscape the acres of non-native turf grass or retire their swimming pools.  Homes built in ecological zones where wildfires are normal (and in some cases, necessary to the health of the environment) will be preserved by taxpayer money and the sweat, blood and perhaps even lives of fire fighters.

Indeed, all across the West, the water situation looks dire.  Yet in Southern California, officials are only pondering cutbacks of lawn watering on some days, a feeble response that will not be strengthened unless their reserves drop precipitously.  So much for thinking ahead.  Meanwhile, environmental laws that preserve things like critical salmon runs and smelt habitat are suspended in the wake of the emergency declaration.

Half of the production of America’s fruit, vegetables and nuts happens in California.  Strangely, no one on the news seems to be talking about how the plight of California farmers will affect food prices.  Not just fresh produce will be affected, but also a lot of our condiment processing happens in California, and meat and dairy farms will be affected as well.  We can just import all our food from South America and China, right?  And if fresh food prices skyrocket, well that won’t affect well-paid journalists, pundits and politicians too much.

It will, however, have a ripple effect across the country, and there are three things that need to be done in every home.

First, every household should have at least a week worth of essential water supplies stored at home.  Not just those in drought-prone areas: drought can happen anywhere and water supplies can be disrupted for many reasons.  (Just ask West Virginia.)  Once you have water stored, start thinking about an alternate water source.  For many, that will be storing rainfall and having a way to filter it to make it safe to drink.  Storing rainfall is easy and an astonishing amount of water goes down your gutters in even a small rain shower.   When not in a drought, rainwater is better for your plants than tap water, so use it for watering outside.  (In some places, rainwater harvesting is illegal due to old water rights laws.)

Second, if you are on a tight budget, you need to think about allocating your food dollars now to storable supplies so you can stretch your budget later if food prices rise.  Don’t store anything you don’t eat, and don’t store so much it will go bad before you eat it.  Processed food will be affected less than fresh food (since much of the cost is tied up in processing, shipping and marketing instead of the actual food cost), so while buying three bottles or catsup or four boxes of breakfast cereal when they are on a great sale is good for your budget, it should take a back seat to any efforts you make in your home to can, freeze, dehydrate or otherwise preserve fresh food that you don’t grow yourself.  Nuts grown in California are an excellent candidate for buy-ahead programs, since they require little if any effort to store for the short term, particularly unshelled nuts.

Third, every household needs to think about securing local food sources.  This is, so of course I think that growing some of your own — even one thing that you normally buy but could be grown at home in a cost effective way for your region — is the very first thing you should consider.  But few of us have the land, time or ability to grow everything we eat or even a majority of what we eat.  Support your local farmers and other food producers.  By supporting them, you help create strong local food systems.  Decentralizing food production helps buffer the market (and your pocketbook!) against regional disruptions.  Buying local also helps stimulate your local economy, and it may improve your health because produce that has languished for days in transit has fewer nutrients than that fresh off the vine from a home garden, or that picked one or two days ago at a farm 30 miles down the road.

With any luck, the drought out West will not be as severe as anticipated, and food prices will be buffered by a good year in another region of the world.  Nonetheless, personal preparedness is always a good strategy, particularly for anyone who need or wants to be frugal.