Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category

I recently saw a question about corn on a mailing list, and wrote up a detailed answer, which I wanted to share with you, my faithful and oh-so-patient readers. If anyone still checks this blog for updates, that is– mea culpa!!

Someone wanted to know if they could plant sweet corn and flour corn together, or how far apart they would have to plant it. They wanted to grow flour corn to make tortillas.

What Kind of Corn for Tortillas?

There are several types of heirloom corns: sweet corn, flour corn, flint corn, dent corn, pop corn, and parching corn. One variety may combine several of the characteristics. Apparently field corn, also known as dent corn, is the preferred variety for tortillas.

By the way, to make masa dough for tortillas, dried dent corn must go through a process called nixtamalization, involving lye, before being ground into masa.

Can I Mix Sweet Corn and Non-Sweet Corn?

Here is how corn works– there are as many silk strands at the tip of an ear of corn as there will be kernels on the ear!
Each tassel of corn silk draws a pollen grain down it to pollinate one corn kernel on the ear. So each kernel on the ear of corn can potentially have a different variety as a parent!

Modern sweet corn (SU1 gene) grown can be grown near non-sweet corn, but the “supersweet” varieties (SH2 gene, usually marked SE for Sugar Enhanced) should not be grown closer than 250 feet from other types (including sweet). (info via UC Davis article ) The supersweet corn silk can pick up other corn pollen, which is generally dominant over the supersweet corn genes, and thus portions of the ear may pick up kernels that are not sweet, and/or have different ripening characteristics.

There was a UC Master Gardener Santa Clara corn trial in 2007 for sweet (SU1) varieties which suggested that Silver Queen or Peaches & Cream would be good choices. These should be able to be grown with or near non-sweet corn.

If you wish to plant super-sweet corn, a UC Davis article for small farmers mentions “Kandy Korn” as a super-sweet variety that needs no isolation from other types. Kandy Korn seeds appear to be available from Territorial Seeds, Gurney’s, and Henry Field’s.

Can I Get Sweet Corn and Tortilla Corn from the Same Plant?

Yes! Corn has been domesticated for a very long time, and many of the folks doing that also loved some nice young sweet corn, steamed in the husks or roasted! There are some multi-purpose corns that can be eaten young as sweet corn and also left to mature for dent corn.

“Green corn is harvested when the corn is still in the “milk” stage, when the kernels are at their sweetest and can be eaten fresh. Varieties that are sweet when young are Blue Clarage, Bloody Butcher, and Black Mexican/Iroquois.” ATTRA.org article

So you could theoretically plant all dent corn of one of the above varieties and still have sweet corn to eat, by harvesting some of the ears early. Some great info on corn varieties can be found in an appendix to ATTRA’s wonderful article on companion planting.

Seed Savers Exchange online is a good place to find heirloom corn varieties, as is Victory Seeds, and Native Seeds Search.

Happy planting! Get some corn going this year!

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We’re starting a new series, the “Garden ABC”. I thought we’d begin with a little scary information about ways that arsenic could be getting into your garden. That may sound bizarre, but actually arsenic is dangerous at very minor levels. The amounts to which we’re exposed, from sources as diverse as coal-fired electrical plants to pressure-treated lumber to municipal water to chicken dinners, add up rapidly. Arsenic is a potent carcinogen, as well as a direct poison. The Safe Water Act would have lowered municipal water levels of arsenic from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb, but it was struck down by the current administration.

We hope that arsenic is not entering your garden through your water supply. If you suspect that it might be, you can request the Consumer Confidence Report on your water supply. The other way that arsenic can sneak into your garden is via commercial chicken manure.

Not Just Chicken Feed

Here in the USA, commercial chicken feed contains roxarsone, an organic (in the chemistry sense) arsenic compound that suppresses bacterial infections in the chickens’ guts and makes them gain weight faster. Unfortunately studies are showing that it’s secreted in the toxic, inorganic form. As one article so aptly put it, Food for Chickens, Poison for Man. It’s banned in the EU and ought to be banned here.

The rate at which bacteria convert roxarsone to toxic arsenic has been widely underestimated until the recent publication of new evidence linking chicken litter and toxic arsenic. The chicken waste is pelletized and sold as fertilizer to commercial farmers. Chicken manure is also sold in dried or composted form at hardware and garden centers. Studies show that fields which are spread with this material are getting noticeable amounts of arsenic.

If you know folks who are giving you chicken manure, check to see if they’re mixing their own ‘scratch’ feed from grains or using a pre-mixed feed that might have roxarsone. There are numerous suppliers of certified organic chicken feed and mash if one prefers a pre-mix.

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No joke, unfortunately. The light brown apple moth (LBAM) from New Zealand could disrupt California agriculture very badly, and has recently been detected in the SF Bay Area. Not just big agriculture, our backyard gardens too, whether flowers, veggies, fruit, or a mix of all three. This little moth’s caterpillars love a lot of plants here, and have no native predators to keep them in check. The official How You Can Help against Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM) brochure (PDF) says:

This includes but is not limited to: oak, willow, walnut, pine, redwood, eucalyptus, apple, pear, citrus, peach, avocado, roses, jasmine, strawberry, table and wine grapes, berries and other ornamental shrubs, bushes and trees.

The brochure includes detailed pictures of the male and female moths, the caterpillars, and coccoons, as well as the sample traps being placed in California counties to detect the spread of the moth.

If you see rolled up leaves on your plants, pluck the leaf and stomp it to a smeary green spot, or put in a ziploc bag and dispose in the trash. Notify your county agriculture commission with your address, date, and the type of plant. Contact info for Santa Clara County. Not in Santa Clara? Choose from list of California counties.

A quarantine zone has been established. If you live within a quarantined section of the county, please don’t share plants with people outside the zone. If you live outside the quarantined section, please don’t buy plants or accept them from individuals or stores inside the zone. The moth got in via plants, fruit, and cut flowers from NZ, parts of the UK, and Hawaii. Be cautious about importing plants or flowers from sites mentioned on the quarantine pages. Light Brown Apple Moth Quarantine Maps (PDF) for SF Bay Area, by county.

Now if only somebody could quarantine MY garden against “the Eaters that come in the night”. Generally snails, slugs, or earwigs, many a promising 3 – 4 leaved seedling has vanished, leaving only a green stem. Time to replant teddy bear sunflowers, this time in larger, transplantable pots rather than a 6-pack where I have to set out tiny seedlings. Bah. And they got several of my eggplants, too! Just when I thought it was warm enough to start taking the recycled-plastic-bottle cloche caps off of them! Actually, several years of hand-picking snails in the garden is paying off, as their numbers have been drastically reduced. But it only takes ONE hungry slug or earwig to clear out a single-seedling buffet. 😦

A tip for folks making cloches– I was using 2-liter soda bottles, because they are clear plastic. I have switched to translucent milk jugs, after discovering the hard way that seedlings protected at night will fry during the day and wither outright. Doh. So unless you make a habit of going out and taking off all those little caps early in the morning, use translucent, rather than clear, plastic.

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A permaculturist explores the cultural affordances of foraging vs horticulture vs agriculture. Fascinating.


Even if we note these structural problems with agriculture, the shift from foraging at first glance seems worth it because—so we are taught—agriculture allows us the leisure to develop art, scholarship, and all the other luxuries of a sophisticated culture. This myth still persists even though for 40 years anthropologists have compiled clear evidence to the contrary. A skilled gatherer can amass enough wild maize in three and a half hours to feed herself for ten days. One hour of labor can yield a kilogram of wild einkorn wheat.(7) Foragers have plenty of leisure for non-survival pleasures. The art in the caves at Altamira and Lascaux, and other early examples are proof that agriculture is not necessary for a complex culture to develop. In fact, forager cultures are far more diverse in their arts, religions, and technologies than agrarian cultures, which tend to be fairly similar.(3) And as we know, industrial society allows the least diversity of all, not tolerating any but a single global culture.

The damage done by agriculture is social and political as well. A surplus, rare and ephemeral for foragers, is a principal goal of agriculture. A surplus must be stored, which requires technology and materials to build storage, people to guard it, and a hierarchical organization to centralize the storage and decide how it will be distributed. It also offers a target for local power struggles and theft by neighboring groups, increasing the scale of wars. With agriculture, power thus begins its concentration into fewer and fewer hands. He who controls the surplus controls the group. Personal freedom erodes naturally under agriculture.

Horticulture is the most efficient method known for obtaining food, measured by return on energy invested. Agriculture can be thought of as an intensification of horticulture, using more labor, land, capital, and technology. This means that agriculture, as noted, usually consumes more calories of work and resources than can be produced in food, and so is on the wrong side of the point of diminishing returns. That’s a good definition of unsustainability, while horticulture is probably on the positive side of the curve. Godesky (10) believes this is how horticulture can be distinguished from agriculture. It may take several millennia, as we are learning, but agriculture will eventually deplete planetary ecosystems, and horticulture might not.

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